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The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989

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“Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.”
–President Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981

Hero. It was a word most Americans weren’t using much in 1980. As they waited on gas and unemployment lines, as their enemies abroad grew ever more aggressive, and as one after another their leaders failed them, Americans began to believe the country’s greatness was fading.

Yet within two years the recession and gas shortage were over. Before the decade was out, the Cold War was won, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and America was once more at the height of prosperity. And the nation had a new hero: Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Reagan’s greatness is today widely acknowledged, but his legacy is still misunderstood. Democrats accept the effectiveness of his foreign policy but ignore the success of his domestic programs; Republicans cheer his victories over liberalism while ignoring his bitter battles with his own party’s establishment; historians speak of his eloquence and charisma but gloss over his brilliance in policy and clarity of vision.

From Steven F. Hayward, the critically acclaimed author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, comes the first complete, true story of this misunderstood, controversial, and deeply consequential presidency. Hayward pierces the myths and media narratives, masterfully documenting exactly what transpired behind the scenes during Reagan’s landmark presidency and revealing his real legacy.

What emerges is a compelling portrait of a man who arrived in office after thirty years of practical schooling in the ways of politics and power, possessing a clear vision of where he wanted to take the nation and a willingness to take firm charge of his own administration. His relentless drive to shrink government and lift the burdens of high taxation was born of a deep appreciation for the grander blessings of liberty. And it was this same outlook, extended to the world’s politically and economically enslaved nations, that shaped his foreign policy and lent his statecraft its great unifying power.

Over a decade in the making, and filled with fresh revelations, surprising insights, and an unerring eye for the telling detail, this provocative and authoritative book recalls a time when true leadership inspired a fallen nation to pick itself up, hold its head high, and take up the cause of freedom once again.

768 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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Steven F. Hayward

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Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
490 reviews695 followers
May 3, 2017
This is the second volume of historian Steven Hayward’s voluminous biography of Ronald Reagan. As with any modern, widely documented life, “voluminous” does not mean “comprehensive”—there is no such thing, and Reagan in particular is the type of man who, when writing about, the biographer must select his facts and weave them into a coherent whole that takes the measure of the man. In this Hayward succeeds brilliantly, while simultaneously illuminating the America of the 1980s—for as I noted when reviewing the first volume, this biography is about the Age of Reagan, not merely Reagan himself. But compared to that first volume, this volume, subtitled The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 is much more about Reagan and less about his times. Or rather, it is about his times, but viewed nearly exclusively through the prism of Reagan, who after all molded those times more than any other human being. The first volume viewed the times largely through other prisms, including most notably Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Here, the focus settles and stays on Reagan himself.

Hayward takes a straightforward chronological approach, alternating between discussing domestic and foreign policy, with all chapters bound together by the understanding that Reagan accomplished much more than many people thought he would, and much less than many people hoped. Such a mixed bag is, of course, all that can ever be hoped for from any political figure—it is an error, and a corrupting and dangerous one, that any political figure, democrat or tyrant, can deliver on all or even most of the hopes of anyone. The book begins (after an excellent Prologue analyzing Reagan’s personality, and concluding that it was not nearly as opaque as many claim), with Reagan’s election (an event I am just old enough to remember). The nation was in crisis—persistent high inflation and unemployment; the continued expansion of Communism; the nationwide perception that America was in decline; and the conclusion by the elites that the country was “ungovernable” (the usual conclusion when a modern Democratic president is meeting resistance, from Carter to Obama).

Reagan’s election was regarded at the time as a sea change in American politics, and in America itself. Hayward quotes a Democratic political operative as noting at the time that Reagan’s in 1989 was “an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmen—Republicans and Democratic—into shock.” This is doubtless true. But it brings up an interesting point—for the past thirty-five years, there have been multiple such political earthquakes where conservatives do much better than predicted and thereby upend the political order. The two biggest that come to mind, of course, are 1994 and 2016. But there are never, ever, any political earthquakes resulting from Democrats doing better than expected. Counterintuitively, though, nothing lasting ever results from the Republican earthquakes—instead the march of left-liberal dominance continues materially unabated (though we will see what Trump will bring). In the infamous words of Obama, America has been fundamentally transformed since 1980, and not for the better. The reasons for this “heads I win, tails you lose” outcome probably relate to the stranglehold the Left has maintained over the educational, media and cultural institutions of the country, as well as the opposition of the all-important moneyed interests to any politics that is actually conservative.

Before his inauguration, Reagan assembled his team, composed in part of California loyalists and in part of relative newcomers to his circle. Throughout the book, Hayward frequently notes the violent political debates that characterized Reagan’s inner circle of advisors, such as critical disagreements on the viability of Reaganomics (with David Stockman playing the role of Judas) and on how to approach the Soviet Union. Such disagreements are often seen as a sign of dysfunction; as we speak oceans of (mostly electronic, today) ink are being spilled to analyze who is getting the upper hand in the Trump White House, with most commentators not bothering to hide their glee at this supposed turmoil supposedly hobbling the Trump administration. But, as Hayward says, “[T]he most successful presidencies tend to be those that have factional disagreement within their inner councils, whereas sycophantic administrations get in the most trouble. Fractiousness in an administration is a sign of health: the Jefferson-Hamilton feud in Washington’s administration, the rivalry within Lincoln’s cabinet, and the odd combination of fervent New Dealers and conventional Democrats in FDR’s White House provided a dynamic tension that contributed to successful governance.” That seems true, but it must also be true that (a) such tension can in fact go so far as to be destructive, which may ultimately be the case with Trump, especially given Trump’s huge deficiencies in leadership; and (b) such tension is not always necessary—the Obama White House team was the very epitome of ignorant sycophancy centered on the Lightbringer (see Jarrett, Valerie) yet was extremely successful (perhaps because of the aggressive cooperation of the news/entertainment complex) in ramming through huge and largely unwanted left-liberal social policies, mostly by administrative action directed from the White House.

As I say, the nation in 1980 was in crisis, and it stayed in crisis for some time, a fact often forgotten. In fact, it got worse, considerably worse, on the economic front (but the spiritual malaise embodied in Jimmy Carter quickly improved). By September 1981 unemployment had risen from 7.4 percent to 8.9 percent and “in the last quarter of 1981, real GDP fell at an annual rate of 5.2 percent.” Moreover, the deficit was much greater than expected (though Reagan’s deficits seems shockingly low to us today). Reagan was under immense pressure from all sides to change his programs (although his personal approval ratings, which had rapidly gone up, stayed high). But he refused, even if he had to tack some.

This strategy was vindicated by events. In the 1982 midterms (when unemployment was 10.1 percent), the Republicans lost some seats but did not do as badly as expected. And then, of course, the economy boomed, lifting all boats. It is commonplace in the media and pop culture to call the 80s the “decade of greed,” which is silly. The real decade of greed was the 90s, where false wealth was created and then evaporated, unlike the 80s, where real growth restored the entire nation. But, of course, a Democrat was President in the 90s, so that truth must be rewritten to attack conservatives and pretend the sunny 1980s were actually an unpleasant decade.

The next few years went generally well for Reagan, with the usual day-to-day political ups and downs. Hayward strongly criticizes Reagan for running a defensive campaign in 1984, one that refused to draw a strong contrast between Republicans and Democrats. It earned Reagan a landslide but failed to improve the position of the Republicans in Congress or at the state level; Hayward calls it “one of the greatest lost opportunities in American politics to break the opposition party and bring about a lasting and fundamental realignment.” I doubt this is true—as I say, political earthquakes have several times occurred that seem to favor such a realignment toward conservative Republicans, but in each case quickly enough the advantage has been lost and the Left has made new strides in its march to dominance—which suggests that only something more aggressive, some new thing, will break the iron triangle of the Left’s political machine, the media/entertainment complex, and the money of America’s financial elite.

On the foreign policy front, Reagan began his term with an uncompromising attitude toward the Evil Empire (although he only used that phrase in 1984). It is hard to remember now (in part because it has been actively suppressed and denied in modern discourse and education), but in 1980 received wisdom across both Democrats and Republicans was that the Soviet Union and the tyranny of global Communism were here to stay, and among nearly all Democrats and many Republicans, a sickening moral equivalency was the default and “sophisticated” position. Our allies were the same: Pierre Trudeau (whose imbecile son is now prime minister of Canada) strongly endorsed Poland crushing Solidarity with martial law, as did leaders of the British Labour Party. This defeatist attitude was buttressed by totally false statistics generated by our government and private Sovietologists: that Soviet life expectancy was greater than in the US; that East Germany had a higher per capita income than West Germany; and that, as Seweryn Bialer said when saying the Soviet Union was in solid shape, “it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.” Thus, Reagan’s fresh, commonsense, morality-based approach was regarded as somewhere between stupid and wicked by the vast majority of the political classes.

But the result of Reagan’s approach, of course, was a breakthrough in negotiations and the ultimate undermining and collapse of the Soviet Union, and global Communism. Reagan rejected the plausible sounding but always false common idea that a hard line would encourage hardliners to rise to power in the Soviet Union; instead, he got Gorbachev. He maintained command of the moral high ground, along with an inflexible position on the Strategic Defense Initiative, but showed flexibility and originality (to a degree frightening to the sclerotic State Department) in negotiating with Gorbachev. This, combined with the internal contradictions of the Soviet Union, was the recipe for the ultimate end of the Soviet Union.

Hayward covers all the nitty-gritty of both domestic legislation and foreign policy machinations (not only involving the Soviet Union, but also proxy wars like Nicaragua, and other challenges such as Libya). This sounds boring, but it isn’t, in part because of the personalities involved and in part because Hayward keeps the story moving. He also covers other key episodes, such as the assassination attempt and the breaking of the air controllers’ strike. And the narrative is leavened by frequent examples of Reagan’s humor: For example, when asked if he knew about Pac-Man, Reagan quipped: ‘Someone told me it was a round thing that gobbles up money. I thought it was Tip O’Neill.’”

Two interesting points stand out to me. First, in the fall of 1984, voters under twenty-four had an 82% favorable view of Reagan. This seems incredible to us now, where we are told that the young overwhelmingly favor Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the snowflakes on college campuses shut down conservative speakers with violence, encouraged and abetted by their professors and college administrations. We are told (often by aged hippies reliving their supposed glory days of the 1960s) that this leftist domination of campuses is the natural state of things and permanent—but as is clear from Reagan’s popularity with the young, this is totally false. As always, things that seem permanent and inevitable are not, with very rare exceptions. Naturally, the Left has a vested interest in pretending and even believing that any movement to the Left is final; it is “the right side of history.” But events like Trump’s election and Brexit (and perhaps this coming weekend’s election in France) show this is false, and such events also show the frenzy resulting in the Left when their deliberately created myth of inevitability is punctured. Thus, puncturing it, and laying waste to the Left, should be our goal, and we should not be discouraged by propaganda telling us it is impossible.

Second, despite such lows points as frequent vicious attacks on Reagan as Hitler, there was much less division in the country than today, even among elites (and also less than in the late 1960s and 1970s). Hayward notes that “Reagan . . . launched a charm offensive even before he took office.” No Republican would attempt such a thing today, because divisions are so entrenched, and the media/entertainment complex would merely use it either as an excuse to further attack him, or claim it showed weakness and obeisance. Trump-style truculence is the only possible successful strategy for Republicans today. Hayward notes, too, that Reagan sent a chatty, humorous filmed message to the Academy Awards in 1981, something inconceivable today—that the Academy would allow a Republican to address the Oscars without showering him with unhinged hatred and contempt.

The book ends with George Bush’s defeat of Dukakis, where the liberal Dukakis was successfully tagged as being a liberal. As Hayward concludes, “Rather than examine whether contemporary liberalism was unpopular with a majority of voters, the media-academic complex took up the rallying cry that Bush had won unfairly and unscrupulously, an approach that has become the template for liberal interpretations ever since.” Hayward wrote in 2009, but as of the spring of 2017, it is very clear that not only has this approach not changed, it has become ever more aggressive and vicious. No need to inquire why Hillary’s policies might not have resonated with Americans; and no need to discuss her close ties to Wall Street (and Obama’s $400K payout for a single speech from Wall Street, and $60 million for a book deal). Trump is illegitimate! #Resistance!

Reagan himself was not a traditional American conservative. He loathed the suffocating hand of government, but he was not a Burkean conservative—indeed, one of his favorite phrases was Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” He meant it in an optimistic, Americans-can-do-anything way, but still, as an expression of unbounded possibilities, it is not a very conservative view, and dovetails too easily with conflating “We” with “government,” something Reagan probably did not see. And his views were formed at a time when the government was much less suffocating and ideologically driven than it has since become: the Cthulhu State, as I have dubbed it elsewhere. Thus, from a philosophical perspective, Reagan was both unique among conservatives and a man of his time, and his time only. Today he would not fit and he would not meet today’s needs. What is more, Reagan nostalgia is a dangerous trap for conservatives today, for the most basic of all principles of life, and the most widely ignored, is “you can’t go back.” Therefore, The Age of Reagan is interesting and has many lessons, but it is not a manual for future conservative electoral or cultural success. This is something Reagan himself would have been the first to see, and something we would do well to remember.
Profile Image for Steve.
328 reviews1,073 followers
October 23, 2018

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
37 reviews
July 29, 2022
Great book on the successes and failures of the Reagan Revolution. I think one of the most important points of the book is that the Reagan Revolution succeeded in dismantling the foreign empire of the Soviet Union but did not come full circle in dismantling our own domestic empire of bureaucracy. What the Reagan Revolution did provide us with in our domestic battles was a changing tide of public opinion about the role of government. While before the Reagan era expansion of government was usually seen as a positive and popular good amongst Americans, it is now met with wide scale skepticism. It is up to us now to continue the Reagan Revolution in our day and finish the domestic battles again bureaucracy.
Profile Image for Jason.
Author 1 book21 followers
June 14, 2016
This is the sequel to Hayward's book covering the years 1964-1980. It is, like the first book, excellent political history and a fun read. It picks up following Reagan's 1980 election and concludes with the 1988 presidential election, with an epilogue on the fall of eastern European communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Hayward writes from a conservative viewpoint, which leads him to be both laudatory and critical of Reagan and his administration depending on the context. Hayward draws heavily on contemporaneous media sources (often revealing the less than prescient nature of such sources). The chapters in Part II of the book on the Reykjavik summit and the Iran-Contra matter are particularly riveting and hard to put down. If you enjoy 1980s political, U.S., and Cold War history, you will enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Joe Keene.
22 reviews2 followers
March 1, 2014
This book is a good read on Reagan's presidency. The author really portrays Reagan in a positive light and I too now see Reagan as more moderate than present day conservatives try to paint him. My one complaint is that the book seems to focus heavily to Reagan's foreign policy, which is to be expected with the Cold War and all, but I feel that there could have been more discussion on his domestic agenda. In all, a required read for anyone wanting to understand Reagan and the politics of America in the 80s.
303 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2016
Great conservative-leaning analysis of Reagan's presidency. I wish Hayward would have stuck to a narrative throughout, but sometimes he drops the ball, for instance, cutting off Reagan's final address and departure from the White House. I loved the discussion on Oliver North's testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. Honest criticisms on Reagan's achievements and failings, despite the clear bias toward the Great Communicator. Recommended.
Profile Image for David R..
955 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2010
A massive study (and the companion of a work covering the 1960s and 1970s) with noteworthy attention to the primary foreign policy arenas (Russia, Central America.) The work is arranged chronologically which sometimes gets in the way of the themes laid down by Hayward. Not as insightful about the president's thinking and character, but useful as a reference to the administration.
36 reviews5 followers
September 25, 2011
After having already finished Hayward's first book on Reagan (his pre-presidential years in politics), this second volume confirms that Hayward is so far the best biographer of Ronald Reagan. If you want to understand Reagan and his brand of conservatism--which along with William F. Buckley, Jr.'s were the cornerstones of of modern conservatism, you need to read these two books by Hayward.
8 reviews2 followers
Currently reading
November 29, 2010
Our house is in a new political/current events book club, and Noah picked this one as the first book. Sheesh. Noah chose it so that he can better understand the enemy. It is super long as a book club book, and I need to go ahead and get my own copy because reading along behind him is not going to work. The author is a Reagan fan.

But its pretty readable.
Profile Image for Joel Manuel.
194 reviews1 follower
March 25, 2014
An excellent overview of Reagan's two terms in office. It has 650 pages of text, but flows rather quickly due to Hayward's writing style. It is admittedly pro-Republican in stance, but Hayward doesn't shy away from exposing Reagan's faults and failures.
Profile Image for Jeff Hall.
11 reviews
June 11, 2013
This is a great book and I would highly recommend to everyone. The author is both critical and complimentary of Reagan and provides many interesting antidotes involving prominent figures of the decade to paint the entire canvas of the decade. Great read and I will pick up more from this author
Profile Image for Joseph Serwach.
151 reviews10 followers
January 4, 2010
Comprehensive and all encompassing look at 1980-1989, a worthy successor to Part 1, which looked at 1964-1980. Probably the definitive books on Reagan.
Profile Image for Michael.
199 reviews
July 2, 2010
Really good chronicle of the Reagan Administration, I would think it would stand as the definitive treatment of the Reagan presidency for some time, at least from the conservative perspective.
Profile Image for Heather Vinson.
199 reviews3 followers
July 29, 2014
A whopper of a 650 page propaganda machine for the Reagan years. Hayward goes into immense detail to recall what everyone in the room was saying, except for the opposition.
Profile Image for Jonah Kunisch.
Author 1 book5 followers
May 8, 2017
Most biased book I've ever read. Sad, considering the author passes it off as "history".
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