Steven F. Hayward's The Age of Reagan is a magnificent new history of our times. It is a big book in every way and yet it reads quickly and delightfully. It's hard to think of anyone who would bring a better set of skills to this task than Hayward, who combines a broad knowledge of 20th century history and historiography with a ready appreciation of modern economics, particularly the key breakthroughs in monetarism, supply-side theory, and public choice. Throughout The Age of Reagan, he appeals to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and, to a lesser extent, Murray Kempton, as witnesses who saw and said invaluable things about the resurgence of conservatism and the parlous condition of their beloved liberalism.
Above all, Hayward is a gifted writer who presents us with a vigorous historical narrative. For all its defense of traditional history, the Right cannot boast of many narrative historians, which is one reason that liberal chroniclers dominate the bookstore shelves. Hayward may have learned from the examples of John Lukacs and Paul Johnson, probably the best living conservative narrativists, but Hayward has a better command of political ideas than either and is much less error-prone than Johnson. (Hayward's prose succumbs to the occasional infelicity, however.)
The Age of Reagan is not a biography but a history, an emphatically (though not exclusively) political history of the last third of the past century. Modeled on Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Roosevelt, Hayward's book (the first of two proposed volumes) bears the subtitle, "The Fall of the Old Liberal Order," his wry salute to the subtitle of Schlesinger's first volume, The Crisis of the Old Order.
For Schlesinger, the old order was the regime of limited government and unlimited capitalism that he thought Roosevelt had replaced; the old order, in short, was conservatism, the conservatism of the America's founders, the post-bellum Republicans, and Calvin Coolidge. For Hayward, at century's end, the old order is liberalism, the novel purposes and institutions of government ushered in by FDR and brought to new peaks of arrogance and zeal in the Great Society.
Accordingly, The Age of Reagan begins in 1964, at liberalism's supreme moment of triumph and modern conservatism's nadir, when Lyndon Johnson had crushed Barry Goldwater in the presidential election; when the Great Society was aborning.
Reagan was no lucky simpleton or bumbling amateur; he was one of the century's most ambitious men. "Cunning," Hayward rightly calls him. Rehearsing for his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan resisted his advisors' efforts to get him to memorize briefing material. (Carter's briefing book, Hayward reports, was a thousand pages long. Reagan's was 71 pages.) During the mock debate, he said to his team, "I was about to say, 'There you go again.' I may save it for the debate."
The Age of Reagan is meant to answer and supplant Schlesinger's The Age of Roosevelt. In fact, the context suggests that Hayward regards Reagan as the greater figure and perhaps, in time, as the more influential President. But again, the book's tight focus on the events of 1964-1980 allows Hayward to sidestep direct comparisons between Roosevelt and Reagan. Though he traces some links between the New Deal and the Great Society, Hayward emphasizes their differences. Hayward avers that Reagan "brought the Republican Party to the cusp of realignment, the consummation of which did not occur for more than another decade." So Reagan did not achieve what FDR did, a thorough-going partisan realignment of the classical type.
Reagan himself had a deliberately ambiguous relation to Roosevelt and the New Deal. He liked to associate himself with Roosevelt, invoking FDR's name (and his 1932 promise of a 25 percent cut in the budget) even in Reagan's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980. Yet Reagan repudiated FDR's programs and legacy, occasionally remarking (to the consternation of journalists) that "the basis of the New Deal was fascism." Hayward notes the ambiguity but does not clarify it, alas. It is odd that the author of a book implicitly comparing the two Presidents does not take more of a stand on Roosevelt's significance. Perhaps Hayward is reserving the subject for his second volume, which will be devoted to Reagan's presidency. In the meantime, The Age of Reagan is the best single-volume account of Reagan's rise and liberalism's fall. This superb book deserves and undoubtedly will get a wide readership.