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“Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.”
–President Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981
Hero. It was a word most Americans weren’t using much in 1980. As they waited on gas and unemployment lines, as their enemies abroad grew ever more aggressive, and as one after another their leaders failed them, Americans began to believe the country’s greatness was fading.
Yet within two years the recession and gas shortage were over. Before the decade was out, the Cold War was won, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and America was once more at the height of prosperity. And the nation had a new hero: Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Reagan’s greatness is today widely acknowledged, but his legacy is still misunderstood. Democrats accept the effectiveness of his foreign policy but ignore the success of his domestic programs; Republicans cheer his victories over liberalism while ignoring his bitter battles with his own party’s establishment; historians speak of his eloquence and charisma but gloss over his brilliance in policy and clarity of vision.
From Steven F. Hayward, the critically acclaimed author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, comes the first complete, true story of this misunderstood, controversial, and deeply consequential presidency. Hayward pierces the myths and media narratives, masterfully documenting exactly what transpired behind the scenes during Reagan’s landmark presidency and revealing his real legacy.
What emerges is a compelling portrait of a man who arrived in office after thirty years of practical schooling in the ways of politics and power, possessing a clear vision of where he wanted to take the nation and a willingness to take firm charge of his own administration. His relentless drive to shrink government and lift the burdens of high taxation was born of a deep appreciation for the grander blessings of liberty. And it was this same outlook, extended to the world’s politically and economically enslaved nations, that shaped his foreign policy and lent his statecraft its great unifying power.
Over a decade in the making, and filled with fresh revelations, surprising insights, and an unerring eye for the telling detail, this provocative and authoritative book recalls a time when true leadership inspired a fallen nation to pick itself up, hold its head high, and take up the cause of freedom once again.
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STEVEN F. HAYWARD is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964—1980, the first of two volumes on Ronald Reagan and his political legacy. He has also written Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders; The Real Jimmy Carter; and Churchill on Leadership. He is an F. K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"THE TOWN TREMBLED":
From Election Day to Inauguration Day
No strongly centralized political organization feels altogether
happy with individuals who combine independence, a free
imagination, and a formidable strength of character with
stubborn faith and a -single--minded, unchanging view
of the public and private good.
--Isaiah Berlin on Winston Churchill
Washington, D.C., awoke on Wednesday, November 5--the day after Ronald Reagan's election--to an unimaginable scene. Reagan's victory had been anticipated, but the depth and sweep of it had not. His -ten--point margin in the popular vote translated into a 489-49 landslide in the electoral college; Reagan won forty-four states, Jimmy Carter just six. Unlike Nixon's forty-nine-state landslide in 1972, Reagan had long coattails: a twelve-seat GOP pickup--and a majority for the first time in twenty-four years--in the Senate, and a thirty-three-seat pickup in the House, enough for a working majority.1 The political landscape was littered with the carcasses of slaughtered Democratic bulls. By Thursday the magnitude of the election was starting to course through the news cycle. "The election was a shocker," Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote in a front-page article with the banner headline "A Sharp Right Turn." "The conservative victory could hardly be more complete." For establishment Washington it was as if a barbarian horde had sacked the city. "The Town Trembled," read another Post news headline.
The Post editorial page was less restrained than the stately Broder. The Post house editorial, "Tidal Wave," admitted that "[s]omething of gigantic proportions happened--must have been happening for a long while--and the capital and the political wise men were taken by surprise. . . . [A]n 'anti-Washington,' 'anti-establishment' political storm warning was missed by Washington and the establishment."2 Reagan had predicted since the early 1960s that a "prairie fire" of conservative populism would someday sweep the nation; on November 4 it appeared that Reagan had finally struck the match. The Post blamed "the used-up, unrenewed and reflexive quality of so much Democratic Party thought and dogma these days." Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts summed up the election's meaning in one sentence: "Basically, the New Deal died yesterday."
The Style section of the Post may have been a better barometer than the staid news pages at capturing how truly aghast was the social sentiment of elite Washington. Columnist Henry Allen wrote: "It's like one of those old horror movies where the atom bomb rouses the dinosaurs from the ice they've slumbered in all those eons . . . and all of a sudden you can hear the cry going up in liberal strongholds: The Reagan People are coming."
John P. Roche, a former head of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, wrote in 1984 that Reagan's election was "an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmen--Republican and Democratic--into shock."3 It was a welcome shock in at least one important establishment neighborhood: the stock market rallied sharply the day after the election, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average soaring fifteen points to 953.16 on record volume of eighty-five million shares. The dollar rallied sharply on overseas currency markets. (The "Reagan rally" proved short-lived; the following day the market slumped again after banks raised their prime lending rate by a full point, to 15.5 percent.)
If American elites and intellectuals were wary of Reagan, among opposition leaders in Eastern Europe Reagan's victory was a glimmer of hope. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Polish resistance, remarked to American reporters after the election that "Reagan was the only good candidate in your presidential campaign, and I knew he would win."4 Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent Reagan a telegram of congratulations that the Washington Post described as "noticeably cooler" than the message sent to Jimmy Carter four years earlier. According to the New York Times, "Soviet officials, whose job it is to study the United States, said they were depressed by the defeat of such Democratic advocates of detente as Senators George McGovern, John Culver, and Frank Church."
Back in the United States, the far Left twitched with predictable paroxysms of paranoia. In Berkeley, more than two thousand people turned out to protest Reagan's election for three nights in a row, forgetting the irony that it was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 that had helped propel his entry into politics. To borrow Yogi Berra's solecism, it was deja vu all over again: police arrested fifty-four people for occupying the chancellor's office.5
To the agitated Left, Reagan's election meant only one thing: the dark night of American fascism was about to descend. Eddie Williams, head of what the Washington Post described as "the respected black think tank, the Joint Center for Political Studies," reacted to Reagan's landslide thus: "When you consider that in the climate we're in--rising violence, the Ku Klux Klan--it is exceedingly frightening."6 This was not far removed from Fidel Castro's opinion about Reagan offered right before the election: "We sometimes have the feeling that we are living in the time preceding the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany." Libya's Kaddafi was not to be left out of the parade, saying, "Reagan is Hitler number 2!" (This is admittedly confusing, since most radical Arab leaders like Hitler.)
Kaddafi's and Castro's reductio ad Hitlerum could also be found in the American press. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Claremont College professor John Roth wrote: "I could not help remembering how forty years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism--all intensified by Germany's defeat in World War I--to send the world reeling into catastrophe. . . . It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our -post--election state with fear and trembling." Harry Stein wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the "good Germans" in "Hitler's Germany."7 Sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote in the New Left Review: "The worst nightmares of the American left appear to have come true."8 In the pages of the Nation, Wolfe's nightmare took a familiar shape: "[T]he United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era."9 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, keeper of the "Doomsday Clock," which purported to judge the risk of nuclear anni-hilation, moved the hands on the clock from seven to four minutes before midnight.10
Triumphant conservatives were more than willing to stoke the Left's paranoia. The election seemed to be more than merely the turning out of the bums; it was, as Harvard's Harvey Mansfield Jr. put it, "a general repudiation of the values of the 1960s."11 The Washington Post's Haynes Johnson quoted an unnamed conservative political activist saying, "This country's going so far to the right you won't recognize it."12 In Oklahoma and Wyoming, Republican enthusiasts placed roadside billboards proclaiming: Welcome to the Reagan Revolution.
* * *
Although the frothier expectations of partisans at both ends of the political spectrum would turn out to be overwrought, the shock of the 1980 election would have a long half-life. For movement conservatives, Reagan's election was a golden moment whose like shall never come again. There was a clear sense of destiny, the overwhelming feeling that Our Time Was Coming. Reagan's decisive victory in 1980 produced an upwelling of sentiment leagues ahead of the usual thrill of electoral victory.
Democrats would take nearly a year to recover their bearings and go on the political offensive again. The media and the Washington establishment had set themselves up for a shock with their pre-election predictions of a close vote. Pollster Burns Roper admitted, "The Press, political analysts and political strategists all missed the magnitude and breadth of the sweep."13 A week before the election, the New Republic's Morton Kondracke wrote that "it seems more likely by the day that Ronald Reagan is not going to execute a massive electoral sweep. In fact, the movement of the presidential campaign suggests a Carter victory."14 David Broder had written: "There is no evidence of a dramatic upsurge in Republican strength or a massive turnover in Congress." Though polls in the days leading up to the election showed Reagan ahead of Carter, most were near or within the margin of error, and everyone was predicting a late-night nail-biter. The New York Times poll three days out had Reagan ahead by a single point; veteran California pollster Mervin Field said, "At the moment there is a slight movement toward Carter." George Gallup said, "This election could very well be a cliffhanger just like 1948."15
During the last forty-eight hours, after most major media and polling organizations had completed their final polls, voters broke sharply to Reagan. The combination of public disgust with Carter and Reagan's reassuring performance in the debate the previous Tuesday provided the catalyst for the Republican surge. Only the two campaigns, each conducting relentless tracking polls, knew what was happening. Both Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, and Carter's, Pat Caddell, saw the same results from their final polls over the last two days before the election. Caddell's polls showed that Reagan's margin moved up to five points on Sunday and grew on Monday to ten points. The pollster's alarm deepened when he saw that the "generic" vote for Democratic House...
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