“Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980” by Craig Shirley was published in 2017. It is the most recently-published (and the second in sequence) 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.
This 329-page book, like the first book in the sequence (“Reagan’s Revolution,”) is an extremely readable review of a relatively brief period of time. In this case, Shirley’s focus is the four-year period between Reagan’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1976 and his successful effort to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1980.
Though this is a biography focused principally on Reagan and his campaign (and his competitors for the Republican nomination) it also provides illuminating focus on the state of the Republican party following Gerald Ford’s 1976 electoral loss as well as the political and economic climate of the country during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
The author’s writing style makes for a carefree and eminently comprehensible reading experience but it often proves far too breezy and informal. And although Shirley’s conspicuous enthusiasm for his subject did not memorably tarnish the narrative in “Reagan Rising,” here it allows Reagan’s halo to perpetually shine while Ford, Carter and John Sears (his campaign manager) rarely seem more than blundering fools.
Shirley does a reasonable job introducing and developing characters central to the 1980 nomination fight such as Robert Dole, George H.W. Bush and John Connally. And he does well highlighting the various structural and self-inflicted headwinds faced by the Carter administration. But the most valuable insight Shirley provides may be the behind-the-scenes view of Reagan’s campaign to which the the reader is treated – turmoil and all.
But the book’s imperfections often overshadow its merits. Where some presidential biographies groan under the weight of history (and occasionally a sluggish literary style), reading this book is reminiscent of eating cotton candy. It is often pleasant in the moment…but eventually you decide there isn’t quite enough substance. And while Shirley thoughtfully injects cultural and economic context into the book, it often feels like “filler” rather than the political connective tissue found in some of Steven Hayward’s coverage of Reagan.
But most disappointing may be that the story of Reagan’s presidential campaign – from its inception through the New Hampshire primary – consumes several often interesting chapters…but the final five months of the campaign is dispatched in three pages. And the Republican convention itself (including Reagan’s selection of Bush as his VP) garners hardly a full page. (Note: coverage of Reagan’s ensuing campaign against Carter as the Republican nominee is reserved for “Rendezvous with Destiny” which I am reading next.)
Overall, Craig Shirley’s “Reagan Rising” is disappointing as a review of the four years leading up to Ronald Reagan’s selection in 1980 as the Republican presidential nominee. Some of the disappointment is due to the author’s writing style; some is undoubtedly due to the book’s relatively narrow scope. But it is not at all clear that Reagan’s primary campaign is better covered here than in the 30 pages it receives in Lou Cannon’s “Governor Reagan.”
Overall rating: 3 stars