Published in 2001, “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order (1964-1980)” is the first book in a two-volume series authored by Steven Hayward. Currently a senior resident scholar at UC Berkeley, Hayward was previously a Fellow at Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center and a Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University. He is the author of six books including “Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.”
Describing itself as part biography, part narrative chronicle and part political analysis, this 717 page book is organized in an accessible and almost strictly chronological manner. Despite its intimidating size it quickly proves a fast-paced and often engrossing exploration of America’s cultural, economic and political currents from 1964 through Reagan’s election in 1980.
Reviewing the Vietnam war, LBJ’s “Great Society,” the civil rights movement, campus activism, Watergate and various economic crises, Hayward studies the decline of liberalism and the rise of the conservative movement which swept Reagan into national office. More broadly, the book serves as a refreshingly readable review of American history during the late 1960s and 1970s (though from a decidedly right-of-center perspective).
Given the author’s conservative bent, Reagan partisans will find much to like in this book…but during most of the narrative Reagan only appears intermittently. Not until the 1980 presidential campaign is underway does Reagan become the central focus of the book…at which point only about 100 pages remain. In a real sense, this book is as much about LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter as it is about Reagan. But there is never any doubt as to the intended star of the show.
Reagan’s relatively brief appearances during the first part of the book (involving, for example, his famous speech on Barry Goldwater’s behalf, his most consequential moments as governor of California and his efforts to secure the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976) are well told but relatively unexceptional. Readers are likely to find more value in Hayward’s unique examination of Reagan’s actions and ascent against the backdrop of the social and political currents of the era.
But readers expecting a modern-day reconstruction of Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age of Roosevelt” series will be disappointed. For better and for worse, Hayward is not in the same literary league as the stodgy Schlesinger. But if Hayward’s narrative is less nuanced and complex, it is also far more accessible – and, arguably, engaging. And where Schlesinger was an unabashed liberal, of course, Hayward’s politics lean decidedly in the opposite direction.
Overall, Steven Hayward’s “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order” is a fast-paced and interesting review of the decade-and-a-half preceding Reagan’s election to the presidency. Fans of the 40th president are likely to appreciate the author’s perspectives and conclusions; others may find the analysis too asymmetric. But anyone seeking a comprehensive account of Ronald Reagan’s pre-presidency will need to look elsewhere, for however you choose to categorize this book…it is not a presidential biography.
Overall rating: “Unrated” as a biography