Craig Shirley’s “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All” was published in 2005. It is the first of four books by Shirley focused on various aspects of Ronald Reagan’s national political career and retirement. Shirley is an author and pubic affairs consultant, a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch and a Trustee of Eureka College (Reagan’s alma mater). His most recent book “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative” was published in 2017.
For most of its 346 pages, “Reagan’s Revolution” is a day-to-day account of Ronald Reagan’s provocative (and nearly successful) 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Before the campaign is fully underway, however, three introductory chapters provide a helpful review of the decline of the Republican Party from the early 1960s through the mid 1970s and set the stage for Reagan’s reappearance before a national audience in 1975.
Shirley’s narrative is generally straightforward and comprehensible – avoiding the stiff, high-brow style that can burden some biographies. But it can sometimes feel too casual or unsophisticated, and it rarely provides the reader with a wonderfully fluid, colorful or captivating style which calls attention to a literary work of art. Far more often it resembles a collection of interesting facts massaged into a history text.
The most valuable aspect of the book is its detailed, behind-the-scenes look at Reagan’s 1976 campaign. But for some readers that will also be its most challenging feature. “Reagan’s Revolution” is too detailed (and too narrowly-focused) for readers unfamiliar with Reagan’s pre-presidency and, ironically, not thorough or penetrating enough for those already familiar with the broad brushstrokes of the campaign.
But the “fly-on-the-wall” perspective Shirley provides can be engrossing and Reagan’s 1976 campaign provides the author with an opportunity to tackle previously uncovered ground. And while his literary voice is not nearly as engaging as David Stewart’s (in his book covering Andrew Johnson’s impeachment) or Candice Millard’s (in her book on Teddy Roosevelt’s post-presidential expedition through Brazil’s rain forest), Shirley does add a layer to Reagan’s complex portrait.
Fascinating to many readers will be the insightful (but usually far too brief) introductions to supporting characters such as James Baker, Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger. Shirley may have intentionally avoided allowing these ancillary characters to slow the book’s pace, but extra time and focus on some of them could have provided greater context as well as a more captivating narrative.
More troubling, however, are “big picture” issues which are never fully addressed: who was Ronald Reagan as he prepared to take the national stage? What, at his core, did he believe (or articulate) that uniquely positioned him to challenge a sitting president from his own party? Was the tight race between Reagan and Ford the result of a widespread hunger for Reagan’s brand of politics, or disenchantment with the incumbent’s intrinsic dullness?
Overall, Craig Shirley’s “Reagan’s Revolution” is a relatively brief, but fairly detailed, exploration of Reagan’s 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. This book’s value depends significantly on the reader. Someone familiar with Reagan’s life up to 1975 is likely to find this book quite interesting (and regret it does not dive deeper); for most everyone else, it will raise more questions than it answers.
Overall rating: 3½ stars