In a world seemingly in chaos dealing with wars abroad, congressional dysfunction, and unstable domestic politics, it is heartening to see that author Craig Shirley has produced yet another important study of Ronald Reagan, a familiar subject to him and by now to most of us.
Despite the reams of already published material, Mr. Shirley’s search for Reagan not only revisits familiar ground but also provides a fresh look at a long career and consequential life.
Early on, Mr. Shirley necessarily discusses Reagan’s hardscrabble Midwestern upbringing, which formed the building blocks of his life and political philosophy — self-reliance, hard work and, above all, freedom. He also notes Reagan’s devotion to natural rights that inspired the Constitution and its allied idea of limited government. So far, this is the familiar road of Reagan analysis.
Mr. Shirley then takes an unexpected but delightful detour. Quoting the author, “He was conservative, but not rigid in his outlook.”
This is explosive in Mr. Shirley’s hands as he enumerates many examples of this governing outlook. In the chapters that follow, he analyzes Reagan’s important decisions that underlined his penchant for supporting and implementing creative, flexible and, yes, pragmatic policies that sometimes went against the grain of many of his supporters.
The examples are legion. Here are just a few:
Reagan worked with House Democratic leaders including Dan Rostenkowski and Tip O’Neill to enact important economic initiatives, including two tax reform bills and an overhaul of Social Security that saw the system remain solvent for 50 years, including the next 10.
Reagan selected two running mates (Richard Schweiker in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1980) who differed with him on key policy issues. He did so to unite the GOP and to strengthen his electoral appeal. Both became supporters and friends.
Reagan nominated the first woman to the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor), supported (belatedly) the Martin Luther King holiday, and backed research dollars for AIDS. As Mr. Shirley notes, while he favored policies to help all Americans, he was not blind to the special obstacles faced by women and minorities.
Reagan opposed a ballot initiative in California in 1979, the Briggs Amendment, that would have terminated all gay people from teaching positions in California.
Most importantly, Reagan set aside a lifetime of opposition to Soviet Communism to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to wind down the Cold War, an initiative that eventually resulted in freedom for Eastern Europe and the ultimate destruction of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin has dedicated his career to reversing this result.
I hasten to assure Reagan conservatives that he accomplished all of this while remaining true to his bedrock philosophy of individual freedom at home and abroad. Unlike many others, however, he added more than a touch of common sense to his governing outlook.
Mr. Shirley doesn’t touch this, but one cannot help but note how different modern-day conservatism is from Reagan’s, as today’s MAGA establishment focuses on isolationism, grievance, culture wars and most sadly, authoritarianism.
Mr. Shirley ends his book with many assessments of Reaganism and Reagan’s presidential years, many useful and on target. I am drawn still to Reagan’s farewell address, delivered one week before the end of his term. In it, he was reflective, positive, thoughtful and focused on America’s future, a future he saw well beyond his own time, something most politicians are incapable of doing.
Here is Reaganism in Reagan’s own words:
“And how stands the city (America) on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm.
“And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home. … We’ve done our part. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”
And finally and most appropriately, he added, “God bless the United States of America.”