Presidential History

One for the Gipper

Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, by Dinesh D'Souza

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Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, by Dinesh D'Souza, New York: The Free Press, 292 pages, $25.00

Most of this fall's college freshmen were born in the year that Ronald Reagan won the White House. These 18-year-olds have only blurry memories of his presidency, which ended when they were in the third grade. Their knowledge about this period comes mainly from books and popular culture, which should worry the Gipper's admirers.

Go to a library's Reagan shelf, and you'll see such titles as The Acting President, Gambling With History, Make-Believe, The Reagan Detour, and Visions and Nightmares. Rent some political movies at Blockbuster, and you'll have a similar experience. Films such as The Pelican Brief and Clear and Present Danger portray fictional Reaganesque presidents in the light that Hollywood sees Reagan: as equal parts faker, killer, and doofus.

Aside from Martin Anderson's Revolution and a few other works, there is empty space where serious defenses of the Reagan administration ought to be. Dinesh D'Souza's new biography is an effort to plug the gap. This concise book offers a useful, if flawed, introduction to Reagan, especially for those who have heard only from the bashers.

D'Souza worked in the White House toward the end of Reagan's tenure. At the time, he admits, he saw the president as a nice fellow atop an administration sinking into scandal and internal strife. Hindsight has changed his view. "Previously I admired the man but had doubts about his leadership," he says. "Now I see that he had faults as an individual but was an outstanding statesman and leader."

Reagan certainly fumbled with details: The book recounts the now-famous story of the time he mistook his own housing secretary for a big-city mayor. But on the large issues and in the long term, Reagan was closer to the truth than his liberal critics. "We're on the edge of a world crash," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in 1982–just when we were on the edge of an historic boom. In 1986 House Speaker Jim Wright sputtered at Reagan's "tear down this wall" challenge to Gorbachev: "It just makes me have utter contempt for Reagan. He spoiled the chance for relations between our two countries." You know what happened next.

History has forced the critics to adjust their initial image of Reagan as an economy-wrecking, war-mongering monster. ("The evil is in the White House at the present time," said House Speaker Tip O'Neill in 1984.) Instead, they have adopted what D'Souza calls "the Revised Standard Version," which acknowledges that, well, maybe we did end up with peace, prosperity, and the total collapse of Soviet communism. But that was just coincidence, says the RSV. Reagan could not possibly have had anything to do with it, since he was just a cheerful simpleton with incredible luck. D'Souza points out that even many conservatives have bought this view, at least in part.

This book guts the RSV. Its numerous examples show that the big decisions belonged to Reagan, not his cynical and pragmatic handlers. Rebutting the notion that he passively read the lines that others set before him, D'Souza explains that Reagan was Reaganism's primary author and that he wrote much of his own material. Anyone can verify D'Souza's point by visiting the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. In reading drafts of major addresses, such as the 1983 "Evil Empire" speech in Orlando, you will find that a good deal of the language is in Reagan's distinctive and legible handwriting.

Reagan accomplished so much, says D'Souza, because he had mastered the three basic elements of leadership: vision, a bias for action, and an ability to build support for his policies. Despite his ideological commitments, he was flexible in day-to-day maneuvers and tolerant of intraparty disagreements. His agility reflected his self-confidence: He could afford the occasional sidestep because he knew where he wanted to go.

Though vivid and readable, D'Souza's account falls short of being definitive. In his enthusiasm to paint Reagan in bold colors, he sometimes misses the pastels that are part of the historical record.

D'Souza lists the major domestic and international developments of the 1980s and concludes that "Reagan was the prime mover; he brought them about." That's a stretch, as D'Souza implicitly concedes later in the book. Discussing the 1982 recession, he says that even Reagan's critics "recognized that [Fed Chairman Paul] Volcker was the prime mover and that his agency is independent of executive control." Reagan did provide crucial support for Volcker's anti-inflationary policies, as D'Souza quickly adds. But by definition, any development can have only one "prime mover."

D'Souza's Reagan-centrism distorts his treatment of the massive 1986 tax reform bill, which he briefly describes as a neat compromise between Reagan and congressional Democrats. In fact, the bill had a wild ride through the House and nearly died in the GOP Senate, until Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood rewrote it while consuming mass quantities of beer. In this case, as in others, the constitutional separation of powers limited the president's control over the course of events.

On the broader issue of taxes, D'Souza properly praises Reagan's leadership in winning an across-the-board cut in 1981. The following year, however, scary deficit projections prompted Reagan to push the biggest peacetime tax increase in history. Although describing the move as a mistake, D'Souza says the Gipper learned his lesson: "Reagan wouldn't agree to any further tax increases, which he believed would stifle the incentives of entrepreneurs and inhibit economic growth." But as D'Souza should have noted, then came a nickel-a-gallon boost in gasoline taxes in 1982, accelerated increases in Social Security taxes in 1983, and various tax hikes in the budget pacts of 1984 and 1987. Although the latter tax packages mainly worked at the margins, they set a precedent for the Big Bad Deal of 1990.

The biggest disappointment of the Reagan administration was its failure to slash the Washington bureaucracy. Not only did all the cabinet departments survive, but Reagan signed legislation creating a new one: the Department of Veterans Affairs. D'Souza admits that Reagan flopped on the domestic-spending side but blames interest group politics and the public's appetites: "As a believer in popular government, Reagan had no intention of thwarting the shared preferences of the people." While plausible, that analysis clashes with an earlier comment: "Reagan did not merely follow the path of public opinion, however. Like a true leader, he worked hard to shape it, so that he could point out the best way for the country to achieve its ideals."

Given all the political constraints, Reagan could not have won a total victory against big government, but he could have done much more. In this respect, free-market activist Fred Smith got it right: "[T]he Reagan revolution hasn't failed–it really hasn't been tried."

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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