ONE OF MY TEACHERS in graduate school insisted that “a history must serve its readers with explanations that suit the horizons of their curiosity and with writing that entertains and stirs them.” Heeding this admonition led me to the unusual style of this book, which requires an explanation.
This book is one part biography, one part narrative chronicle, and one part political analysis—an amalgam that does not easily fit into a recognized nonfiction genre. It attempts to explain how and, more importantly, why
Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. A capacious narrative seemed the best style to convey this broad theme. Winston Churchill noted the necessity of capturing the wider context of a person in his four-volume account of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough: “In a portrait or impression the human figure is best shown by its true relation to the objects and scenes against which it is thrown, and by which it is defined.”
The decade-and-a-half preceding Reagan’s ascent to the White House was arguably the most politically tumultuous for the nation since the decade before the Civil War. The events shaping the political climate of the country seemed to be larger than the personalities who tried to master them. To the extent that Reagan came to express the soul of America, it is necessary to understand the trials of that soul. Reagan, to borrow a metaphor from his first career, was only occasionally at center stage during these years, which is why he enters and leaves this narrative like a
Frederick Maitland wrote that the essential matter of history is not what happened but what men and women thought and said about it. This narrative pays special attention to the contemporaneous perception and evaluation of events. This not only offers frequent moments of irony when seen from the perspective of today, but also foreshadows the shape of a number of controversies that are still very much alive now.
Two special notes. First, although this narrative is hard on liberals and liberalism, it is not intended that “liberal” be taken as a pejorative. The years covered here—1964 to 1980—begin with the apogee of liberalism and end with its nadir, so it cannot be a happy time for liberals to contemplate. Yet it is my hope that liberal-minded readers will engage this narrative in a spirit of self-criticism, and also with an eye toward correcting any errors of fact or interpretation that have led me to an unduly harsh or unfair judgment. There ought to be more thoughtful occasions
for political argument between Left and Right than Geraldo
It is my hope that this book can provide such an occasion. There have been many narratives that cover one half or the other of this story, i.e., the trials of liberalism or the rise of conservatism. I have sought here to bring the entire spectrum together into an interactive whole.
Second, one of the omissions of this account is that it slights the place of Nancy Reagan, whose role and influence on her husband is widely perceived, even if many of the details still remain private. I hope to remedy this defect in a second volume of this work, which will be tightly focused on Reagan’s White House years, when the center stage spotlight fell fully on him alone. Liberals take heart: the second volume will reflect on what the Reagan experience teaches about the limitations of conservatism, and how conservatives may be failing to learn from the mistakes of liberals before them.—Rescue, California, June 2001
Excerpted from The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order by Steven F. Hayward. Copyright © 2009 by Steven F. Hayward. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.