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The Bad Old Days, Revisited

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In 1997, Apple began their famous “Think Different” campaign, featuring a variety of famous figures from the 20th century who did indeed, think very “different” from most of their peers: Edison, Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, and others.

One name that was missing, probably because it would taint the politically correct spirit of Apple, or at least their ad agency, was Ronald Reagan. And yet, to go back in time to the early 1960s and explore the period of American History until his inauguration on January 20 of 1981, is to understand just how “different” from the accepted common wisdom of the day he thought.

But before we do that, let’s briefly flash forward to earlier this month, when Republicans regained the Senate on November 5, thus restoring the control over all three branches of government that they briefly had from President Bush’s inaugural until Jim Jeffords defected to the Democrats in the spring of 2001.

Bush immediately declared that the election would be a ‘no gloat zone’. Avoiding gloating is good. Avoiding hubris is even better: to paraphrase that eminent philosopher, Stan Lee, too often, with great power comes great hubris. And hubris is where the story of the Age of Reagan begins.

In The Age of Reagan, the first of a projected two volume series, Steven Hayward does an excellent job of explaining just how different Reagan’s thinking that government can’t solve all problems was in the 1960s, as liberalism ascended to its apogee. The Democrats were already in control of all three legislative branches in Washington when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and the presidency transferred to Lyndon Johnson. It was at that point that the fairly jaunty “can-do” optimism of liberalism that dominated Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy ossified into arrogance.

As Hayward notes, the Kennedy administration never had the hubris to declare “a war on poverty”. It was merely “an attack on poverty”, begun with a pilot program on juvenile delinquency, created to test out their theories, and see what, if any results they’d achieve. Only then would they consider scaling the program up, and would no doubt have used the feedback from their first efforts to shape it.

When Johnson wanted a signature domestic policy for his nascent administration, this “demonstration project”, as it was called in the Kennedy Administration, was immediately scaled up to a full-blown Texas size-equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and became, as “the war on poverty”, the core of Johnson’s Great Society. (This would of course, be the first of many wars on, and its failure would taint every other “war on” project to come, including the “war on drugs”, still of course going strong, and the burgeoning “war on terrorism”. One can only pray that it delivers more promising results than the previous “wars on”.

This same arrogance that believed that an untried overblown program could eliminate poverty, believed that it could win a war against an enemy it knew virtually nothing about, and using far more carrots than sticks in the process. Martin Luther King famously said that “the War on Poverty died on the battlefields of Vietnam”, and in a sense he’s right. As Hayward points out, the two are unified in their conception, execution, and disastrous denouement.

Conservatism’s Low Point

If the birth of the Great Society was the apogee of liberalism, then it’s not surprising that it was similarly the perigee of the conservative movement, which was pronounced DOA by the media after Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by an enormous margin in 1964.

For writing about such a central figure in conservative politics, Hayward is fairly audacious in only briefly introducing Reagan when he campaigned for Goldwater in 1963, and then taking over 95 pages before he appears again, during his 1966 campaign and subsequent election to the governorship of California. By doing so, Hayward leaves no doubt what the moral, political and sociological tone of the 1960s was, and how far removed from the norm conservatism was.

As Hayward points out in its introduction, his book is not a biography of Reagan. (For those, turn to Peggy Noonan’s recent book, or even Edmund Morris’s infamous post-modern experimental effort, Dutch.) Rather, as his title (borrowed, Hayward freely admits in his introduction, from Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Roosevelt) implies, Hayward’s goal is to place Reagan in the context of his times.

The Bad Old Days

If the tone of Democrats was optimism, albeit bordering on hubris and arrogance, at the beginning of the Johnson administration, by the end of the 1960s, it had a far different character: pessimism and defeatism, as the failure of the Vietnam war, the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and inner city and campus riots caused the ofenthusiastic and pro-American liberals of the first half of the 20th century to be replaced by the hard, cynical anti-American Left that would come to define their party for the remainder of the 20th century.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was elected by a razor-slim margin in 1968 as a counterweight to the New Left. But as Hayward does an excellent job of highlighting, Nixon, often misinterpreted by the left as a conservative, is only now slowly being properly understood as governing-especially in his first term-as a liberal-indeed, as even more of a liberal, in many respects, than Lyndon Johnson was.

The Age of Moynihan

The film Almost Famous, while set in the 1970s, has numerous touches designed to appeal to a modern audience, including joking references to first generation fax machines (that take ten minutes a page), and lines like, “You guys don’t think Mick Jagger will be singing rock and roll when he’s 50 do you??!!”. Similarly, at several points in the book, Hayward shows what numerous modern day politicians were doing thirty and forty years ago:

Nineteen sixty-four found Richard Nixon practicing law in New York, and traveling the world burnishing his political reputation while mulling another possible presidential run. Nixon shrewdly recognized early on that Johnson would likely prove unbeatable, and that his best course was to bide his time for 1968. Thirty-nine-year-old peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was midway through his first term in the Georgia legislature. William Jefferson Clinton was completing his senior year of high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas; he lost the election to be student body secretary (because of a peculiar school rule, he was ineligible to run for class president), but he would head off to Georgetown University in the fall. Captain Colin Powell had returned from his first tour of duty in Vietnam late the previous year-where, he concluded, “It’ll take half a million men to succeed”-and was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. A native of New York, Powell was shocked at the segregated hotels and restaurants he experienced during his drive to his new post. Another northern-born transplant to the South, Newt Gingrich, was a graduate student in history at Tulane University.
Along the way, Hayward uses Pat Moynihan almost as a Greek chorus as the voice of reason among liberals: pointing out the limits of welfare and a dovish military policy, and defending Israel in the face of the UN’s ambivalence in the 1970s. There’s a moment in Hayward’s book where Moynihan’s stock is never higher: as the UN declared that “Zionism was racism” (and they should know, as they were lead by ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim), Moynihan walked over to the Israeli ambassador and softly whispered a defiant “F**k ’em” in his ear.

Had he chosen to, Hayward could have easily have used much of the same material and titled his book “The Age of Moynihan” and made it far more palatable to liberal readers. Except that Reagan was listened to by his party, and Moynihan’s plaintive cries of caution were generally ignored by his.

It was also during the 1970s that the free market began to be taken seriously again: the first serious thinking on supply-side economics began to be undertaken simultaneously by members of the Wall Street Journal and the Ford Administration.

Supply-side economics was too embryonic a movement to do much to help Ford himself of course. Like Jimmy Carter, his successor, Ford was wedded to Keynesian economic theory. As Hayward amusingly notes, in 1975, the Democratic Congress called for a tax decrease to reduce unemployment, which Republicans vigorously argued against. Within ten years of course, roles would be dramatically reversed, but not before 1980, when the weight of 20 years of conventional economic wisdom finally came crashing down in the form of a crippling recession (which really could be called “the worst economy in fifty years”), gas rationing, “the misery index”, double-digit unemployment, interest rates, and stagflation: add to this the Iranian hostage crisis, and the recipe for Jimmy Carter’s defeat at the hand’s of Reagan was assured.

If we think about them at all (and indeed, the fact that most Americans don’t is what allowed the “worst economy” line to work for Bill Clinton when describing a far milder recession in 1992), it’s not difficult to recall the late 1970s as truly the bad old days, as set in motion by the events of 1964.

A Quadruple Play

As James Bowman noted not too long ago, the first two-thirds of Hayward’s book are stronger than the remaining third, as the book shifts in tone from a history lesson far removed from the conventional wisdom of the 1960s and ’70s, to a Theodore White-style diagramming Reagan’s first run at the White House in 1976, and his ultimately successful attempt in 1980.

Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with that history, then you’ll enjoy that retrospective as well.

The Age of Reagan is a unique quadruple play: it’s an excellent historical analysis from a decidedly different cant, it does a thorough job of reflecting how world events shaped a man who would come to shape them himself, highlights two presidential campaigns (one failed, the other successful) and it serves as a (perhaps unintended) warning to current and future politicians.

Recommended to thoughtful readers on both sides of the aisle.

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About Ed Driscoll