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Katherine Ernst
Was Reagan a Liberal?
Yes, according to a new biography.
2 March 2007

Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, by John Patrick Diggins (W. W. Norton, 512 pp., $27.95)

Though it’s been nearly two decades since Ronald Reagan waved goodbye to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from a presidential helicopter, the definitive text on the man has yet to be written. Early works—even noble efforts like Lou Cannon’s 1991 President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime—came along too soon to calculate the full breadth of the Gipper’s accomplishments. Later attempts tended to be ideological hack jobs on the idiot geezer actor (who did NOT bring down the Soviet Union!). Edmund Morris’s Dutch got so lost trying to find the soul inside the suit that it created a fictional narrator to move the story along.

John Patrick Diggins’s new Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History looks, at first, like the real thing. Finally there’s a book—written by a prominent academic, no less!—whose dust jacket boasts of “placing him in the pantheon with Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt.” Oh yes, you think. An account that gives the man his due. And the author’s not even on the Hoover Institution’s payroll.

But the book doesn’t live up to its cover. Ever since the Baby Boomers inherited the hallowed halls of academe, their aim has been to see who can buck the conventional wisdom the fastest—and then who can buck the bucking of the conventional wisdom the fastest. By crowning Reagan one of the greats, you see, Diggins can stand alone among his intellectual peers. But acknowledging Reagan’s role in bringing down the Iron Curtain, or calling him a pillar of American leadership, would align the author with those . . . conservatives. After all, they see Reagan as conservatism personified. Didn’t they want to put him on a coin a few years ago?

Diggins solves the quandary by bowing at Reagan’s altar but not conceding that his politics had anything to do with his accomplishments. The Great Communicator wasn’t great because he was a conservative, Diggins argues; “on the contrary, he was a liberal romantic who opened up the American mind to the full blaze of Emersonian optimism.” This surprising thesis does not discredit the book; rather, it begs for a strong case for such a bold dive against the tide.

Unfortunately, Diggins never makes that case, choosing instead to argue for his real thesis: Reagan is great because he didn’t listen to those dastardly neocon advisors who are now rewriting history to take credit for his accomplishments. “Reinhold Neibuhr’s question—how much evil must America do to achieve good?—was one that rarely bothered neocon intellectuals,” Diggins writes. “In their mind, the problem of liberal America was its reluctance to use power to do good or evil.” One chapter, “Neoconservative Intellectuals and the Cold War,” profiles these agents of destruction in Reagan’s inner circle. Diggins is sure to note Richard Pipes’s and Norman Podhoretz’s Jewish backgrounds. Another chapter, “Into the Heart of Darkness,” which deals with the eighties’ debatable wars against Marxists in Afghanistan, Grenada, and Angola, paints Reagan as a reluctant tetherball, swirled around the playground pole by the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Caspar Weinberger, and other creepy figures.

Diggins—the author of many books, including a well-received biography of Max Weber—is clearly a smart man and a capable historian. But it’s obvious why he wants to separate Reagan from his ideological beacon. “[T]o rescue Reagan from many of today’s so-called Reaganites,” he writes, “may help rescue America from the pride of its present follies.”

It’s fine to feel that way about the Iraq war. But to make Reagan over into a kind of idealist peacenik is intellectually dishonest. Diggins writes that Reagan’s championing of freedom and the individual indicates a “denial of the existence of evil”—a good thing, in the biographer’s view. But what about Reagan’s memorable characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”? That, Diggins explains, was Reagan’s “relying on an ill-advised speechwriter.” (Not true, according to Reagan speechwriter Anthony Dolan: the President demanded that the line remain after several red-pen attempts by the State Department.) Diggins also declares that when “reluctant cold warrior” Reagan “moved away from the Hobbesian world of fear and dread and sought the trust of Gorbachev, the neocons turned against him.” Is he forgetting the crucial second half of Reagan’s famous motto: “Trust, but verify”?

Politics aside, Diggins’s attempt to cast Reagan as a “romantic Emersonian” gets lost in a puddle of highbrow gobbledygook. Nearly the first third of the book reads like an Oxford dissertation, rather than an approachable treatise on our fortieth president’s philosophical road to Damascus. Discussing the influence that Whittaker Chambers’s Witness had on a young Reagan, for example, Diggins writes: “In certain respects, Chambers’ political trajectory can even be said to presage our own contemporary poststructuralist nihilism in its deconstruction of the human subject.” Pages and pages read with all the smug detachment of a Yale Club soiree.

But the most damning thing about Ronald Reagan is how little it actually talks about Ronald Reagan. Sure, he’s a tough nut to crack: Lou Cannon once told fellow Reagan biographer Dinesh D’Souza, “I regard Reagan as a puzzle. I am still trying to understand the man.” But Diggins doesn’t even try to dig. The most banal question is the most crucial one: Does the reader really learn anything about Reagan and his accomplishments? The answer: a disappointing no.

The definitive Reagan text has yet to be written. It doesn’t need to be rah-rah conservative, or anti-intellectual, or sycophantic. But it must put objective conclusions above ideological gripes. Reagan’s journey from simple Illinois boy to Churchill’s heir is nothing short of stunning; he deserves a biography of the same nature.

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More by Katherine Ernst:
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Audacity of Humility
Lefty Profs Exposed
More . . .
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