I was about half-way through Dinesh D'Souza's enjoyable new book, "Ronald Reagan: how an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader" on February 6 of this year (my birthday, as well as the former President's), when I came across a curious paragraph. D'Souza writes that contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence to suggest that Reagan ever took afternoon naps. With the Monica Lewinski scandal in full swing at the time, it seemed quaint to me that Reagan's alleged naps in the Oval Office were such a big deal over a decade ago, now that his current successor has been accused of much more disreputable behaviour in the very same room.
America hasn't really changed that much since 1988, the last full year of the Reagan presidency, yet I can't help myself from thinking of Burke's "Reflections", when the grandfather of modern conservatism writes: "the age of chivalry is gone... and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever". Or, as P.J. O'Rourke would say: "we nostalgically recall the days when sleeping with the president meant attending a cabinet meeting."
Of course, Reagan would probably grimace at such reactionary sentiments. D'Souza lovingly presents him as a forward-looking, optimistic man who would much rather accomplish his goals and make a difference than cry in his beer about battles lost. Indeed, D'Souza's book is welcome in large part because Reagan's own autobiography, "An American Life" has rightfully been accused of lacking any real self-introspection. D'Souza allows us to understand the "man behind the mask".
We learn, for example, that Reagan's ego was rather small in comparison to those of most other politicians. Reagan was perfectly willing to let others take the credit for initiatives in order to get things done, and for that the world owes him plenty. His tax cuts created nearly 20 million new jobs, and helped the US economy stay competitive over the long term. His arms buildup, and later his willingness to trust Gorbachev, played a major role in ending the Cold War and throwing the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history. When asked if he were jealous of the rapturous reception given to Gorbachev by the American people, Reagan replied of course not; hell, he'd co-starred with Errol Flynn!
America can survive a joke presidency like Clinton's in large part because of improvements made by Reagan. As a former domestic policy advisor in the Reagan White House, D'Souza never says anything terribly damaging about his old boss, and defends him from critics both on the Left, and the Right. to the former, he points out that the tax cuts didn't cause the huge deficits of the 1980s, and that the USSR didn't exactly collapse all by itself; to the latter, he acknowledges that yes, government did expand under Reagan, yet Reagan never promised an all-out war on government - simply a desire to hold back on new spending and cut taxes.
D'Souza is not a professional historian, and his work is best described as a thematic biography. You won't find either a well-documented history of Reagan's early life, or any juicy White House gossip, yet you will find convincing defenses of Reagan's foreign and domestic policies, as well as an excellent character sketch of the Gipper himself.
Best of all, D'Souza throws in plenty of examples of the famed Reagan wit. Reagan to his doctors after getting shot: "Please tell me you're Republicans"; Reagan on hippies holding "make love, not war signs": "they don't look like they could do much of either"; Reagan in the middle of the Iran-Contra scandal, circa 1987: "Do you remember the flap when I said the bombing would begin in five minutes? Remember when I fell asleep during my audience with the Pope? Remember Bitburg? Boy, those were the good old days".
Throughout the 1980s, I can remember a good number of conservative-minded people say about Reagan that he was doing a lot of positive things, yet he wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. D'Souza tells us that like Eisenhower, Reagan often stayed out of trouble by playing dumb. At one point he was visited by a delegation of northeastern shoe manufacturers. Big GOP contributors, they told him how their businesses were suffering due to foreign competition, and asked him for new protective tariffs. Reagan certainly could have lectured them on the merits of free trade (the Thatcher approach), but he instead spent his time telling them how much he loved to wear cowboy boots at his ranch, and how tough it was to buy a good pair of shoes. The manufacturers left his office befuddled; Reagan seemed like a nice guy, but didn't seem to follow what they were saying. Once the manufacturers were gone, however, Reagan remarked to his aides: "No way I was giving in to that crew".
D'Souza's won't be the definitive book on Reagan, but it does provide some balance to a debate which has tended to portray the 1980s as a huge greedfest, and Reagan either as a racist warmonger who hated the poor (the hard left approach), or as a nice, doddering old man who allowed real people to get hurt at the expense of the rich (the liberal version). Canadian conservatives could learn much from a man who won two landslides -against strong opposition from a hostile intellectual elite - with tax cuts and a smile.