Published in 2009, “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution (1980-1989)” is the second 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.”
Unlike its predecessor volume (which devoted most of its time to the “Age” of Reagan rather than the man himself) this 639 page book can unquestionably be characterized as a biography of the 40th president. To be more specific, it is a comprehensive and detailed examination of Reagan’s presidency within the political, economic and social context of the 1980s.
Hayward quickly confesses his pro-Reagan sympathies but this does not prevent him from criticizing Reagan for his most obvious failures (at least from a conservative’s perspective): for allowing the federal bureaucracy and budget deficit to grow untamed, for asserting that tax cuts would pay for themselves, and for his contributions to the Iran-Contra scandal. But despite these occasionally harsh appraisals, the overall merit and majesty of Reagan’s presidency is unquestioned.
The Strategic Defense Initiative is covered extensively (and well) and the examination of Reagan’s relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev is quite good. The chapter reviewing Reagan’s 1984 re-election (including Walter Mondale’s fight to capture the Democratic nomination) is fascinating. And the portrayal of other characters, such as Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, is entertaining if a bit satirical at times.
Hayward also does an admirable job injecting the cultural and political trends of Reagan’s era into the narrative. And the Iran-Contra scandal, which is almost always a tedious topic when discussed in any detail, is comparatively well-explained here.
Readers hoping to see Reagan away from politics, however, will be disappointed. And even those with a penchant for politics will find that many policy discussions prove so thorough they take on a “wonky” feel. The narrative dives quite deeply into certain topics (monetary policy and arms control, for instance) and in these cases it is easy to lose sight of the “big picture.”
Hayward’s writing style is thoughtful, articulate and can be extremely clever. But this book can also feel as though it was written by an astute, and sometimes oddly defensive, partisan who forgets there are two sides to every coin. And there is no trace whatsoever of the periodically unprepared, disengaged or aloof Ronald Reagan who is found in other biographies; Hayward’s Reagan is sure-footed, determined and always engaged.
Overall, Steven Hayward’s “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution” is a detailed and thoughtful guide to the Reagan presidency from an undeniably right-leaning perspective. Because it almost entirely misses his private life, this book is not satisfactory as a personal biography. But as a political biography, providing a thorough review of Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, it can be quite good.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars