Reagan: The Fruits of Success

Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House

by Laurence I. Barrett
Doubleday, 511 pp., $19.95

Reagan’s Ruling Class: Portraits of the President’s Top One Hundred Officials

by Ronald Brownstein, by Nina Easton
Pantheon, 759 pp., $9.95 (paper)

In the Cabinet Room of the West Wing of the White House, where tall leather chairs, one slightly taller than the rest, surround an oval table, each president hangs portraits of three predecessors, implying similarities the incumbent finds appropriate or flattering. Lincoln and Jefferson are traditional choices; but in place of Harry Truman, whom Jimmy Carter had retrieved from the White House storeroom, Ronald Reagan selected Calvin Coolidge.

The choice of Coolidge is a reminder of how potent the supply-side ideology was at the start of Reagan’s term. The principal case to be made for Coolidge was that his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, had overseen a reduction of the maximum income tax rate from 58 percent to 25. But everything else in Reagan’s campaign amounted to a promise to recapture Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s, when the United States was at the zenith of its military and economic dominance, and when an American president last enjoyed a two-term reign.

Two-thirds of the way through his term, Ronald Reagan has proven more successful than Eisenhower at a comparable point in using the powers of office. With his repeated victories in the Congress, he has for the moment muted many theories about the impotent modern presidency. With his thorough vetting of political appointees, he has steered the permanent government more fully in his direction than most other recent presidents. He has been able to sound, as he chooses, either bipartisan and statesmanlike, as when arranging last year’s Social Security reforms, or ferociously partisan, as when defending his military plans. He has jettisoned appointees who proved troublesome, such as Ann Gorsuch Burford, yet stuck with others, such as Kenneth Adelman or William Casey, when he judged the opposition too weak to prevail. By replacing Richard Allen, his original national security adviser, with William Clark, and Alexander Haig with George Shultz, he offered an example “to future presidents…of the gains from changing a team that clearly was not working out,” I.M. Destler writes in The Reagan Presidency. “Kennedy reportedly worried that replacing Dean Rusk would be an admission of initial error; Carter never faced up to the incompatibility of Brzezinski and Vance. Reagan, by contrast, showed that a timely switch could bring benefits many times the short-run costs.”

Reagan has concentrated on a few tasks, instead of fighting fires. He is obviously ignorant of many of the details of government but unmistakably clear about his general intent. He has also enjoyed remarkable luck. More Americans died when the Soviet Union shot down the Korean passenger plane than would have been killed if the Iranian “students” had executed their American hostages one by one. But when it comes to the question of strategy, things are infinitely easier for a president once the blood has been shed and he need only choose the proper way of expressing outrage.

His adroitness to date does not necessarily mean that Reagan will be reelected or even that he will run. But it does …

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