Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. By Dinesh D’Souza. Free Press, $25, 292 pp.
Ronald Reagan left office in BY 1989 with a 70 percent public approval rating-higher than that of either Eisenhower or Kennedy. Yet, despite overwhelming popular approval, the intellectual elites despise him. Why?
Dinesh D’Souza’s fine biography confronts head-on the “Revised Standard Version” of the Reagan Presidency. Thanks to leftists in the soi-disant mainstream media and academia, everyone knows that Reagan was a dim-witted, lazy man with an actor’s gift for fooling the public. He supposedly slept through Cabinet meetings; ignored his advisors; was “detached” from the details of governing.
And this is not too surprising since, after all, Reagan was the son of the town drunk and graduated with a “C” average from the undistinguished Eureka College. Left-liberals were apoplectic. The Atlantic Monthly accused him of “sleepwalking through history.” Harper’s opined that it was “humiliating to think of this unlettered, self-assured bumpkin being our President.” The New Republic called him “virtually brain dead.”
D’Souza notes that Reagan “lacked the two characteristics of the liberally educated person: self-consciousness and open-mindedness.” Even conservative intellectuals were embarrassed by him.
After laying out all these criticisms, D’Souza launches a fascinating exploration of how this flawed “ordinary” man was able to achieve so much, arguing that Reagan was a visionary “who was able to see the world differently from the way it was.”
While others obsessed over the problems of the present, Reagan focused on the future. He did not get bogged down in the little details of administration and politics that managed to stunt or destroy the presidencies of much smarter men like Nixon, Carter, Bush, or Clinton. D’Souza further argues that Reagan possessed “what Edmund Burke terms ‘moral imagination.’ He saw the world through the clear lens of right and wrong… land] firmly believed that, however prolonged the struggle, good would eventually prevail over evil.”
Reagan’s outlook and character came from lived experience. He learned first hand of the perniciousness of Communism as the head of the Actors’ Guild in Hollywood. Reagan distilled the hopes and dreams of ordinary hardworking Americans he talked with during his years as a traveling spokesman for GE. He learned from corporate executives the consequences of excessive government regulation and high taxes. Finally, unlike most politicians, Reagan didn’t care for personal glory. “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit,” read a sign on his White House desk.
However outwardly friendly, Reagan was self-contained. D’Souza claims he had no close friends and was distant with his children. “People would work for him for a decade, then leave, and he would not associate with them… he wasn’t their pawn, they were his,” writes D’Souza. Incapable of genuine intimacy, Reagan did not lust for public approval. By contrast, Bill Clinton responds like one of Pavlov’s dogs to every opinion-poll blip.
Despite these criticisms, was Reagan really an “extraordinary” leader? Yes.
“Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot,” former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has commented. When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was on the march and the smartest American policy wonks thought that the best we could hope for was “mutual co-existence.” Reagan saw the conflict in moral terms, denouncing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” He began an immediate military buildup, confident the Soviets could not match it.
Only Reagan had the vision to argue for strategic missile defenses, which his advisors opposed vehemently. Eventually, Reagan achieved what his fiercest critics thought impossible—instead of merely “freezing” nuclear weapons, he negotiated the first-ever reduction.
When Gorbachev responded to U.S. dynamism by trying to open up the Soviet Union, the oppressed people overthrew the Communist tyranny. “No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women,” said Reagan in his first inaugural speech. The last two decades proved him right.
Reagan also got America back on the road to prosperity. When he took office, the U.S. was suffering double-digit inflation, high unemployment, and sky-high interest rates. Harvard’s Robert Reich and MIT’s Lester Thurow were advocating massive government programs in the form of “industrial policy” as a panacea for our economic ills. Instead of flinching at the pain that the Federal Reserve was inflicting as it wrung inflation out of the economy, Reagan urged the American people to “stay the course.” Reagan cut the income tax twice. Staying the course and the tax cuts resulted in a seven-year boom.
Despite these achievements, the Reagan administration didn’t usher in heaven on earth. He failed to cut the size of the federal government, and his tax cuts, combined with the military buildup, increased the federal deficit. Nevertheless, Reagan left the country in much better shape than when he started.
Finally, D’Souza reminds us of the importance of Reagan’s optimism as the foundation for his policies: “Reagan was confident that if Americans were given greater political and economic freedom, they would use it productively and decently. Freedom, in Reagan’s view, promotes not just the good life but also a life that is good. He insisted that when we place confidence in people, we bring out the best in them.”
This is a point that today’s dour conservatives would do well to heed.
Ronald Bailey is a Washington, DC-based writer who has written for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Reason.