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Reagan: Pragmatist or Conservative Purist?

Marcus Witcher's new book seeks to 'get it right.'

Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016, by Marcus Witcher, University Press of Kansas, 448 pages, February 2020.

On January 19, 1989, as the fortieth president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, departed the White House, the New York Times reported that “no one credits Mr. Reagan with being much of an intellect,” the went on to question, “does anyone call him a hard worker or active leader.” Rather, the newspaper of record claimed, Reagan’s “strength lay in delivering lines that were arranged for him.” While such words might not be totally shocking, given the source, what Marcus Witcher reveals in his extraordinary and critical new book, Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016, is that such views did not emerge merely from the left. Conservatives, too, dumped on Reagan, criticizing everything from his failure to free the market sufficiently enough to his placating of the Soviet Union. To be sure, no one, left or right, could have predicted the complete collapse of Eastern European communism over the next several months, and such knowledge might very well have reshaped even the New York Times’s opinion of the greatest president of the twentieth century.

Witcher: The Best of the Best of the Rising Generation

A recently-minted PhD in history, Marcus M. Witcher is, arguably, the finest and most impressive young scholar in a generation. As his first book it would make even the most senior scholar and historian proud. Even the opening line—“Ronald Reagan was no conservative ideologue”—is immediately captivating. From there, the book only improves. “This book recasts Reagan as a shrewd political operator who often moderated his conservative positions—much to the vexation of conservatives during the 1980s.” Rather than being ideological on fine points of intellectual rigor, “Reagan was a pragmatic conservative who understood that building coalitions across party lines was essential to effective governance.”

Getting Right with Reagan advances four arguments.

First, Witcher convincingly argues that conservatives thought little of Reagan during his two terms as president. They were, for better or worse, the first to criticize the man and find his shortcomings.

Second, the author notes, again well, that Reagan’s successful waging of the Cold War—though, mostly in hindsight—allowed conservatives to recreate their image of him as a sort of secular demigod, allowing his life and character to be the “glue” that holds together the movement after the fall of communism. Prior to Reagan’s success as a Cold Warrior, anti-communism had held together the various strands of conservatism.

Third, Witcher claims that post-Reagan conservatives and Republicans have moved “significantly to the right.” These post-Reagan conservatives seek to out-Reagan each other. In other words, Reagan has become a myth and a symbol far different than he was in reality.

Finally, Witcher makes a convincing case for ending his study in 2016. When I first saw the title—before having read the book—I scratched my head. Why not take the analysis up through 2019? As it turns out, Witcher reveals that Trump has never attached himself to the Reagan legacy or to the large currents of conservatism. Rather, he had done everything possible to present only himself, in full populist mode, separate from any recent president. “Trump did not invoke Reagan’s name or run on his platform during the primary or general election,” Witcher writes in the conclusion. “Trump showed little to no inclination to embrace Reagan’s legacy at all, and many of his policy positions” have been simply contrary to Reagan’s own. Crazily, both President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton have more explicitly embraced Reagan than has Trump.

In all of this, as should be obvious from the header, Witcher has painstakingly researched not only his position but every possible variation of criticism of Ronald Reagan from all parts of the political spectrum and even some from the apolitical. Kudos, of course, to the University Press of Kansas for allowing Witcher to employ nearly 150 pages of the book to endnotes and bibliography. The endnotes are not only stunningly masterful in terms of scope and breadth, but they are also revealing in terms of textual details. If I have one complaint about the book’s layout, it is that I might have sprained my wrist turning from chapter to endnotes. Certainly, the book is well constructed. If it had not been, the spine would’ve easily become unhinged from such page turning. Here’s hoping the second edition of this excellent book will have footnotes rather than endnotes.

What about Conservative Intellectuals?

If Witcher is to be criticized—and one would only do so at the reviewer’s own peril, as Witcher has anticipated almost all possible arguments against his position—it would be for conflating conservative intellectuals and academics with conservative pundits and talking heads. Witcher references and quotes William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan, but he looks to Russell Kirk only once, and he completely ignores Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, Harry Jaffa, and their students. 

Thus, one can question what exactly conservatism means. In the book one realizes quickly that conservatism is never actually defined, as it is a moving target, given status relative to the meanings assigned to it over the past forty years.

If Witcher had taken the views of, for instance, those of Kirk, Nisbet, and Jaffa, he might be able to offer his readers an objective lodestar, something by which one could navigate the last four decades of conservatism.

In his own writings, Kirk never failed to praise Reagan for being one of the—if not the—greatest conservatives of the twentieth century. In Reagan’s first year in office, Kirk gushed:

For his power of will, Ronald Reagan is honored already. He has had the audacity to declare that this American Republic will endure and thrive. He has been sufficiently bold to set his face against the prophets of decay. With the old Romans, he knows that audacity is a bulwark, and that fortune both fears and fears the audacious. The American Republic commenced with audacity; if that audacity is exhausted, the Republic must end. Ronald Reagan, the audacious American stage-manager just now, is not disposed to let fall that iron curtain of national destiny. For him, the American drama is not yet played out.

Reagan awarded Kirk the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” in 1989, and the recipient never lost his admiration for the 40th president. In his final words written towards the president, he wrote, “In Reagan was no touch of pomposity. He did not take himself more gravely, nor the world more gravely, than he must. After suffering some defeat in the Congress, he did not repine, but laughed, perhaps. He jested with bullets in him.”

Of the prominent conservative intellectuals of the 1980s, only Robert Nisbet openly disliked Reagan. Nisbet saw Reagan as a progressive in foreign as well as domestic policy. Reagan had, to Nisbet’s dismay, only honed and perfected the old Puritan jeremiad, proclaiming anywhere and everywhere, that America could perfect herself and claim a unique and expectational position in world history. In the pages of this august journal, only eleven years ago, my esteemed and beloved colleague, Richard Gamble, made a similar claim: “But overall, Reagan preached yet another version of sinless, progressive America that had more in common with Tom Paine and Woodrow Wilson than with Edmund Burke.”

Even more diabolic, according to Nisbet, Reagan used national security, like Nixon before him, as a cover for a coup d’état. “Before it is over the Reagan administration may well be proved to have captured the prize for systematic lying to the public,” Nisbet argued. “The Iran-contra episode alone has made the administration a formidable contender for the century’s prize. But it is well to recall that an imposing background exists for the Reagan accomplishments in public deception, a background going all the way back to President Wilson.”

Though Eric Voegelin never commented on Reagan beyond mere statements of fact, one of his most important students, Richard Allen, served as Reagan’s first National Security Advisor. Allen remembers well his conversation about the Cold War with Reagan 1977. When Allen asked the older man who he would wage the war against the Soviets, he merely answered, “My theory of the Cold War is, we win and they lose. What do you think about that?” Reagan, Allen remembers, never wavered on this issue. “Reagan went right to the heart of the matter. Utilizing American values, strength, and creativity, he believed we could outdistance the Soviets and cause them to withdraw from the Cold War, or perhaps even to collapse. Herein lay the great difference, back in early 1977, between Reagan and every other politician: He literally believed we could win, and was prepared to carry this message to the nation as the intellectual foundation of a presidency.” Never did Reagan’s understanding of freedom being superior to Soviet tyranny shift. “These themes never varied in the essentials, primarily because he was the principal author of everything he said,” Allen records, “and he would never say anything with which he disagreed.”

In Sum

None of these criticisms are worthy of much contemplation. My own interests lie in what conservative intellectuals think rather than what conservative pundits do. But I’m not the author of this wonderful book, and I cannot blame Witcher for writing the book that I might (but did not) have written. On his own terms and on his own ground, he had nothing to prove. More accurately he has through Getting Right with Reagan, already proven himself to be one of the finest young historians in the United States at present. That Witcher has no full-time, tenured position is not only criminal, but it reveals just how corrupt and bizarre academia is. Any college worth its salt should scoop this fine young scholar up just as quickly as possible.

Bradley J. Birzer is author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth as well as The Inklings: Tolkien and the Men of the West (forthcoming, ISI Books).