What He Knew, And When He Knew It

Poor Ronald Reagan. Just because he was "caught extolling states' rights to a southern audience and civil rights to the Urban League on the same day," Andrew Busch reports, Democrats and political reporters accused him of being inconsistent.

A bum rap, insists Busch in Reagan's Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right. Reagan, "a Jeffersonian but not a bigot, undoubtedly saw no contradiction," and it is "only through a particular political lens" that his statements could be considered "gaffes."

Busch is right about the bigot part. But that was not just any southern audience (and it was actually a day before the Urban League speech). Reagan's audience was an overwhelmingly white crowd in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Extolling states' rights wasn't a gaffe. It was a none-too-subtle signal: "I'm one of you." It worked.

But will one find any suggestion of political cynicism in Busch's book? Heaven forefend. This is a fan's version. Not a fan blind to his hero's faults, but Busch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, recounts the events of 1980 with the perspective of a conservative ideologue.

The result is a politically interesting contradiction. Conservatives will read this book at their peril; it will reinforce their preconceptions, the false as well as the true. Liberals, on the other hand, might find it valuable as well as infuriating. For all his overstatements and misstatements, Busch gets a lot right, and supports his ideas well enough to challenge the denial with which some Reagan belittlers have been deluding themselves for 25 years.

Start with what Busch calls "the bottom line" of the Reagan presidency: "[F]or most Americans … Reagan had inherited a disaster and left a revival." How strong -- or desirable -- a revival can be debated. But if the situation in early 1980 was not a disaster, it was close enough for government work. Defying the rules of economics, unemployment and inflation both rose. Mortgage rates were in the high teens. America had been flummoxed by the Soviets in Afghanistan and humiliated by the hostage crisis in Iran. After three years in the job, Jimmy Carter still didn't seem to know how to be president. Elmer Fudd could have beaten him.

But Fudd would not have gotten 51 percent of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes. Reagan did so because he was a great campaigner and a great candidate -- he was a great politician. It wasn't just his "winning personality," which some Democrats still insist explains his two landslides. Voters are not that stupid. Good looks and a charming smile do not win elections on their own.

Part of being a great politician is understanding what is going on around one. Reagan did. That's because, as Busch amply illustrates, Reagan was a very smart fellow. Granted, it was a different kind of intelligence than the typical policy wonk usually confronts. Reagan and empirically testable fact did not inhabit the same realm. But he was a shrewd judge of people and politics, he knew himself, and he had a consistent, coherent vision of what could and should be done.

None of which would have mattered had his not been the vision in the ascendant. Sure, conservatives have oversimplified and exaggerated it as much as liberals have tried to deny it, but surely something was happening here, and in this case the Mister Joneses who didn't know what it was occupied the liberal establishment.

This book can help all those Joneses figure it out, if they are willing to wade through the kind of writing one would expect from a professor of government. Even the dramatic -- and Reagan regnant -- night of the Nashua debate in which Reagan proclaimed, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green," is recounted in bland, bloodless prose (and without noting that Reagan stole the line from a movie; does Professor Busch not know, or has he chosen to ignore this point?).

Nor does Busch provide any new information. Aside from interviews with four Reagan campaign officials, he relies entirely on previously published material. This is a book that rises or falls on the strength of its analysis, some of which is an absurd caricature of liberalism. He who asserts that the "Vietnam war effectively ended the commitment of Democratic elites to the policy of containing communism" ought to provide one example. Busch doesn't, perhaps because there are none.

But amid all the right-wing cant are some insights. At some point, as Busch writes, the "countermajoritarian federal judiciary was central to the advancement of the liberal agenda," with political consequences still being felt. And he is right when he points out that though almost every liberal program was "popular in its own right … sometime around 1964, the advocates of the new order had stopped adding up what the pieces meant in the aggregate."

Busch's problem is that, being an ideologue of the right, like his counterparts on the left he cannot see that the ideology of the voters is as much tribal/psychological as it is political. Then and now most voters come down on the liberal side of most issues, but they disdain liberalism because they don't like liberals.

Who can blame them? Liberals are the folks who tell the rest of us that we don't live right. No one wants to hear that, especially when it's true, which is sometimes, and most especially when it is expressed with condescending hauteur, which is often.

You know who did see that? Ronald Reagan. That's why he made that speech in Philadelphia.

Jon Margolis, the former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.