A Reagan Biography
Jude Wanniski
December 30, 1997


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Ronald Reagan by Dinesh D’Souza

There are only 264 small pages of text in this “biography” of Reagan, subtitled How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. I had not intended to read it, knowing D’Souza to be a young man who came into the administration out of Dartmouth at the end of the Gipper’s eight years. It did not seem plausible to me that he would have anything much to say, with his inexperience and youth. I’d also been put off by his 1995 book, The End of Racism, which betrayed his youth and immaturity with a hypothesis that struck black intellectuals as itself a racist tract. Still, this is an ambitious and intelligent fellow who, if nothing else, is unafraid of big ideas and is willing to take big risks.  Besides, my son Matthew bought me the book as a Christmas present, and I decided to give it a go after the turkey dinner. It did not put me to sleep, and I found it to have good taste while being less filling than the assortment of desserts Patricia had prepared for the family feast.

It’s not a biography, which is why I stuck “quote” marks on the term above. Reagan’s biography can’t really be written with any endurance for at least another generation. It is more a pre-mortem eulogy and I have to say -- given that limitation -- it is an excellent one. What an audacious thing for a young man who has never done such a thing to attempt! It is all broad brush, but D’Souza has absolutely captured Reagan’s earthy genius, which is why the subtitle is more appropriate as a title.

Reagan’s successful bid for the presidency in 1980 cannot be understood without seeing how he redefined the message of the Republican party to make it appealing to a majority of middle- and working-class Americans. Many conservative pundits do not understand this.  Their view is that [Barry] Goldwater pioneered the conservative takeover of the GOP, and they see Reagan as another Goldwater who happened to run at a more propitious time. Shortly after Reagan was elected president, I attended an anniversary dinner for National Review at which George Will said in his keynote address, “It took approximately sixteen years to count the vote in the 1964 election, and Goldwater won.” 

Goldwater was a pioneering figure because he attracted a new generation of conservative activists to the Republican party. In 1964 they wrested the nomination from the moderate wing for the first time, and their grassroots organizing and political institution building grew in magnitude and sophistication over the next decade and a half. Reagan benefited from the fertile harvest of ground that had been first ploughed by Goldwater’s recruits.

There were important differences between Goldwater and Reagan, however, which help to explain why the former failed and the latter succeeded. Goldwater was basically an Old Testament figure. He was anchored in the time-tested values of the past and seemed to regard the future as anathema. He was a reactionary who threatened to repeal much of the New Deal. He also had a hard, combative edge, evident in his boast that the United States could “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin.” He famously said that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater could be charming on occasion, but as a political candidate, he frightened people.

Reagan, by contrast, was a New Testament figure. Like Goldwater, he was capable of outrageous remarks. As president, he once said over the radio that he had signed legislation “which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.” But he didn’t know that his microphone was turned on; Americans understood he was joking. Moreover, when Reagan said that “sometimes moderation should be taken in moderation,” there was a twinkle in his eye. Reagan projected a warmer public persona that Goldwater; he was philosophically conservative but temperamentally genial.

It could not be put much better, and D’Souza deserves credit for tackling the idea that conservative intellectuals like George Will have fostered over the years that Goldwater was the beginning of something, when in fact he was the end of something. D’Souza is kind enough to credit Goldwater with inspiring young conservatives into what were essentially kamikaze missions, but he clearly distinguishes between Old Testament pessimism and New Testament optimism. An eye-for-an-eye gives way to the Good Shepherd, who trusts but verifies.

Should you go out and buy the book, published by Free Press? I think if you have $25 or the discount price they ask at amazon.com, and you want to get a grip on the Gipper, why not? If you were in knickers in the Reagan years, you can read it in a few sittings and will have a much better sense of him than you can get by the first wave of revisionist history, which is being written by those who love government for its own sake and loathe Reagan.  D’Souza does not really understand supply-side economics, so don’t expect much there. But it is worth the price of admission to read direct quotes from the wise men of the time, which make them look like dopes today. I’d forgotten, for example, that MIT’s Lester Thurow in 1989 -- that’s right, 1989 -- was still celebrating Marxism-Leninism: “Can economic command significantly... accelerate the growth process?  The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can... Today it is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.”  This is in the chapter D’Souza titles, “The Wise Men and the Dummy.”