Some years ago I had occasion to hear Sir Martin Gilbert, then in the midst of producing the official biography of Winston Churchill, discuss how he became interested in writing history. His answer was simple — curiosity. As a small boy, he wondered why bombs were falling from the sky on London, why he was being packed aboard a ship and sent off to relatives in Canada, why his uncle in the army came back from captivity in Asia some years later weighing less than 100 pounds. “I wondered what this meant,” he said, “how it could happen, and what caused it. . . . [T]he absence of explanations for what seemed important things made a vivid impression on me, and I wanted to try to figure out, if I could, why many things were as they were.”
A similar, though far less dramatic, set of circumstances explains why I have spent the better part of a decade doing something rather egregious according to current publishing conventions — writing a long, old-fashioned, two-volume narrative history of Ronald Reagan and his effect on American political life (The Age of Reagan) — even though the events it discusses would seem to have been thoroughly covered and well understood by this point.
When I was in the first grade, in the fall of 1964, I knew two things with certainty. First, my mother and father were crazy for Barry Goldwater — the only candidate for whom they ever affixed a bumper sticker on their cars. Second, I knew that Goldwater would win, because all my schoolmates said their moms and dads were for Goldwater, too. Needless to say, I was bewildered when, the morning after, I heard the news that Goldwater had not only lost, but lost badly. The beginning of my political education began with the realization that there must be a wider and different world beyond my suburban community.
Anyone my age or older has their own recollection of those turbulent years. I was curious about why my father, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, would shake his head over the headlines in the evening newspaper about the latest events in Vietnam (we still had evening papers in those days). I puzzled over why my anti-Communist parents would nonetheless describe our John Birch Society neighbors as “kooks.” Amid all the confusions and shocks of the time, it became axiomatic around our family dinner table that the new governor of California, the former TV and film star, should and probably would some day become president.
So I set out in the late 1990s to write copiously about Ronald Reagan. I did this in the first instance to understand better the times in which I had lived, but secondly and more importantly, because I was sure, even as late as ten years ago, that Reagan would end up not eulogized but “Coolidgized” — in other words, like that other once-popular president of the past (Calvin Coolidge), Reagan was likely to fare poorly at the hands of the media-academic complex.
But along the way, over the last decade, a surprising and unexpected thing happened: Reagan’s reputation started to soar, and even liberals started to like him — but not all of him, to be sure, and therein lies the need for a broad-gauge narrative history of the man and his times.
Liberal writers and scholars who once scorned Reagan, such as John Patrick Diggins, Richard Reeves, Sean Wilentz, Douglas Brinkley, and, most recently, James Mann, have produced unexpectedly positive assessments of Reagan and his presidency — an upward revision that rivals the belated esteem that Dwight Eisenhower received at the hands of historians, starting a decade or so after he left office. This admiration is limited and qualified, however; once the accounts move beyond the Cold War and some of the previously unknown aspects of Reagan’s personal writing, such as his copious letters and diary, the accounts of Reagan are sorely lacking. One is tempted to paraphrase Reagan’s famous movie line: “Where’s the rest of him?”
Apart from the Cold War, the usual narrative is that most of Reagan’s presidency ranged from fiasco (such as his economic policy) to disaster (the Iran-Contra scandal), just as many historians incorrectly judge Winston Churchill’s pre–World War II career as largely a failure or a disaster. This disjunction between Reagan’s Cold War statecraft and his domestic statecraft is a major interpretive mistake. Above all, too many treatments of Reagan try to abstract him from his ideology, which is, to borrow G. K. Chesterton’s phrase, like “trying to tell the story of a saint without God.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, commit a symmetrical mistake. Although Reagan was and remains the hero of conservatives and Republicans, over the last decade many conservatives have forgotten the aspects of the Reagan presidency that disappointed or frustrated them to various degrees. As a result, they are not taking seriously some fundamental challenges of conservative governance that the Reagan experience poses. Much of the admiring conservative literature about Reagan, like that written by liberals, also focuses chiefly and too narrowly on the Cold War story.