Сraig Shirley is THE definitive biographer of President Ronald Reagan. And this is the fourth volume of that definitive biography.
This is an important book because it shatters some of the myths which have grown up in the afterglow of Reagan’s remarkable presidency.
Looking backwards through the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the long period of economic growth, and the sheer artistry of Reagan as President, it is easy to romanticize how easy and how inevitable it was. Shirley knows better and he teaches us with a masterful combination of facts and anecdotes.
Shirley knows that Reagan could always have stopped after 1976. He loved his ranch and he loved being with Nancy. As Shirley notes in Reagan Rising, there were a lot of grassroots folks who never wavered but there were a lot of politicians who thought Reagan’s time had passed. As Irving Kristol said to his son in 1977 “I guess we will have to be for Jack Kemp since Reagan will be too old.”
Shirley also knows that the nomination of Governor Reagan was far from a sure thing. The Eastern establishment did not like him and largely rallied around George H.W. Bush, a Yale, Skull and Bones, legitimate scion of the establishment wing of the party. Hard core conservatives wanted someone with a greater edge like Congressman Phil Crane. Governor John Connelly saw himself as a natural president. The list went on and on.
Reagan was hamstrung by a really bad campaign run by John Sears. After losing Iowa, the Reagans decided to fire Sears and bring in a new team. That decision probably saved Reagan from defeat and the country from a Carter reelection (neither Shirley nor I believe any other Republican would have beaten Carter who had eliminated Ted Kennedy, pretty decisively, to win renomination).
Finally, there was no guarantee of a Reagan victory in the fall. As Shirley reports, Reagan stumbled at the beginning of the general election, found his rhythm and began gaining ground. However, it was only after the one debate, scheduled on the eve of the election, that Reagan pulled away to win a decisive victory.
For those who remember 1980 this is a refreshingly accurate and candid reminder of that great campaign. For those too young to know what a remarkable moment it was, this is a great introduction to a key part of their country’s history.
Shirley is to be congratulated for a fine work of history and a good job of storytelling.
Newt Gingrich is a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and 2012 candidate for President of the United States. In 1995 he was elected the first Republican Speaker of the House in 40 years followed by such legislative achievements as welfare reform, a balanced budget and a cut in the capital gains tax. He is the author of 28 books, including Treason with Pete Earley. Newt and his wife Callista also are documentary film producers.