“I’m doing the full Reagan.”
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley is ticking off the itinerary for his book tour, which includes the eponymous ranch, the impressive library, and the former president’s alma mater, Eureka College. But he could just as easily be talking about his literary journey—including four probing books on President Reagan, with more to come.
The latest, Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976–1980, published in March, is his fourth on the Gipper. Shirley began where the Reagan story nearly ended, with an account of the 1976 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution, which appeared in 2005. Next was Rendezvous With Destiny (about the 1980 campaign) and then Last Act (Reagan’s post-presidency).
And Shirley says he is just getting started. As many as seven more books are in the works. Three are geographical and chronological: following Reagan from Illinois to California to Washington. Two are thematic, focusing on his role in running the Screen Actors Guild and orchestrating the final defeat of communism. And then the stories of two campaigns—1968 and 1984—also await.
John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, notes that the significance of Shirley’s work lies in part in the fact that his subject is “larger than life” and “changed the face of the nation for centuries to come.” The project, with so many volumes seeking to do justice to such a figure, has been “no easy task,” says Heubusch, adding, “Most contemporary historians of note have steered clear of attempting [such a] feat.”
Some people believe that historical writers should be coldly neutral toward their subjects. But a counterargument is that the task of the historian is to understand his subject, and that requires sympathy. Shirley understands his subject and sympathizes with him because he was there as an activist in the historic 1980 campaign. Writing in National Review, Clark Judge likens Shirley to Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, who was uniquely qualified to write about it because he had fought in it as a general.
Shirley’s achievement has won accolades not only from conservatives but also fellow Reagan biographers. Lou Cannon, author of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, praises Shirley’s first two books for their “historical sweep” and “understanding of the outlooks of Reagan’s adversaries.”
“I rank Craig Shirley among the very top Reagan biographers,” adds Paul Kengor, a political scientist at Grove City College and himself the author of seven books on the former president. “And when it comes to Reagan’s immediate pre-presidential years, namely in the 1970s, Craig Shirley’s work is without peer.”
Shirley’s special contribution thus far has been illuminating periods of Reagan’s life that were defining but overlooked. His latest volume, Reagan Rising, exemplifies this approach. Today we remember Reagan for his sunny optimism, his supply-side economics, and his successful courtship of the Religious Right—all elements that were missing in 1976 but decisive in 1980. Reagan Rising tells the story of what happened during those intervening years.
Shirley understands, as Thomas Carlyle once said, that history is really the biography of great men. Hence Reagan Rising illuminates not only the Reagan mystique but also the times and culture in which the man lived. Consider, for example, this gem on the significance of the movie Star Wars:
Star Wars was an enormous hit in large part because there were no moral ambiguities in the film—everybody knew who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. It touched the heroic psyche deeply ingrained in American culture, one that Hollywood had been trying to beat out of the country for years, with one movie after another in which casual murder, gratuitous sex, and the triumph of evil were so easily depicted.
Star Wars—which celebrated individual freedom in opposition to a collectivist empire devoid of any individuality—had obvious political overtones. “Before Reagan ever called the Soviet an ‘Evil Empire,’ George Lucas, no doubt inadvertently, made sure that everybody in America equated his bad guys with the ones in Moscow,” Shirley writes.
When asked about his contribution to our nation’s perception of Reagan, Shirley says he was among a group of biographers (such as Lou Cannon) who prevented Reagan from “drifting into irrelevancy.” That sounds inconceivable today, but maybe that’s because of writers like Shirley.
But Shirley quickly shifts the focus from the impact of his books to Reagan’s impact—his restoration of American morale, his defeat of communism, the economic comeback of the 1980s. Some achievements are still underappreciated: “This is a very dynamic, intellectually curious individual who really revived the American presidency, revived America’s concept of the presidency, and really in so many ways changed it as an institution,” Shirley said.
Shirley’s books are clearly a labor of love. Hence, it’s little surprise that all of them have been, as he puts it, a family affair. Shirley once enlisted his 11-year-old son, Mitchell, to help him research news articles for one of his books. (Mitchell helped him come up with the idea for Last Act.)
And his wife, Zorine, herself a conservative activist, has long been the editor of his books. The two met during the 1980 campaign.
Shirley lives and works in the orbit of Washington, DC. He is the founder, chairman, and semi-retired CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, headquartered in Old Town Alexandria. But Shirley does not consider himself a member of the capital’s insider class of wine-sipping “jaded courtiers.” He explains, “There’s a difference between being in Washington and of Washington. You can be in Washington but not be of Washington.”
That anti-establishment spirit is reflected in his firm’s client list, which has included the Tea Party Patriots, Ann Coulter, and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, according to a 2013 Washington Post profile.
As circumstances would have it, Shirley’s homes in Lancaster and Tappahannock are suitably well-removed from the capital at a distance of two or more hours. Shirley says he is devoting himself to speaking and writing full-time. In addition to his prodigious output on Reagan, Shirley has also managed to find the time to write a history of World War II, December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World, which was a New York Times bestseller, and he also has a biography on Newt Gingrich, Citizen Newt, which is set to be released later this year.
If Reagan once was at risk of drifting into irrelevance, today the risk is the opposite, with so many now looking for the “next Reagan.” But Shirley considers efforts to draw comparisons between today’s GOP politicians and Reagan “overblown.”
Such parallels, he adds, are fundamentally un-Reaganesque: “You will never find a speech, an interview, a quote, a musing by Ronald Reagan saying ‘Well, I want to be the next Calvin Coolidge’ or ‘I want to be the next Franklin Roosevelt.’ Ronald Reagan was far too self-confident and inner-directed to say something like that.”
Of course, Reagan remains as relevant as ever, but his legacy is not dependent on the changing fortunes of the GOP—just as Abraham Lincoln’s star remained undimmed by the lackluster Republican presidents who succeeded him. “Reagan now belongs to history,” Shirley said. True enough, and Craig Shirley has written much of that history.
Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. Email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @bealenews