A review of Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power by Lou Cannon

Lou Cannon is Ronald Reagan's premier chronicler. A distinguished journalist, he has written over 1,000 articles (mostly for the Washington Post, but earlier for the San Jose Mercury) and five books about Ronald Reagan. The latest, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power, consolidates and revises Cannon's earlier work on the pre-presidential Reagan, incorporating material from his Ronnie and Jessie: A Political Odyssey (Doubleday, 1969) and Reagan (G.P. Putnam, 1982), and offering an expanded account of Reagan's governorship, including new material based on detailed notes of cabinet meetings not previously available. He also incorporates quotations and insights from some of the many handwritten Reagan speeches and other writings that have become available in recent years.

Cannon gives us extensive accounts of the campaign for governor, the major issues of Reagan's two terms as governor, and how Reagan grew into the job and learned what he needed to know. Specific chapters delve into central issues—the budget, the major tax increase, funding for mental health hospitals, the management of the disturbances at the University of California at Berkeley, fair housing, welfare reform, tax limitation, the environment. Later chapters take the reader more lightly through the years between the governorship and the presidency, in effect linking the new book to Cannon'sPresident Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (Simon and Schuster, 1991).

Cannon has long recognized that Reagan was underestimated—as a candidate and as an officeholder, both in California and in Washington—and by conservatives as well as liberals. Attributing the events of his administration to others—cabinet, wife, staff—is, Cannon recognized as early as 1991, a mistake that obscures Reagan's accomplishments and shortcomings and makes him a more elusive figure. Cannon views Reagan as a principled pragmatist. "Reagan was a conservative, beyond a doubt. He was also a practical and resourceful politician."

Valuing Reagan as a communicator and leader but not a man of ideas is, Cannon argues, a weakness of the conservative view of him. Analyzing the 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater—the speech that brought Reagan to political attention—Cannon writes, "Reagan was no intellectual, but he knew what he believed and why he believed it, and he wove his ideas, single-handedly and without the help of speechwriters, into one of the most successful thematic speeches in the history of American politics."

In Governor Reagan Cannon also challenges the view, promoted in Reagan's own 1965 autobiography, that Reagan had been a liberal Democrat who became a conservative Republican only as he awakened to the Communist menace in post-war Hollywood and gradually realized that government was encroaching on individual freedom. "This conventional opinion of Reagan's evolution persists," Cannon says, "in the face of evidence that he was an orthodox and not a leftist Democrat and solid proof that his conservatism was tempered and pragmatic during his eight years as governor and eight years as president of the United States." Reagan may indeed have been an orthodox Democrat, but his views did change over time. At the end of his second term as governor he wrote to Ben Cleaver, the minister who was the father of his high-school sweetheart and with whom he kept in touch over the years: "I remember once, many years ago when I was an ardent New Dealer during the first term of FDR, you remarked that we could not spend our way into prosperity. I thought you were wrong at the time. Now, from hindsight, I realize that we took a turning back there in 1932 that has led to our present troubles."

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An exception to Cannon's assessment that Reagan was an astute and pragmatic politician is his judgment that Reagan's support of Proposition 1 was a mistake, indeed a fiasco. Proposition 1 was a complicated ballot initiative to amend the California Constitution to accomplish the dual purposes of (a) limiting state taxes and state spending to the 1973 level of spending in relation to personal income (8.3 percent), and then (b) to reduce this to 7.0 percent over a number of years. It was defeated 54-46 percent in November 1973. The Los Angeles Times opined that Reagan had lost his first major election in California and wasn't even on the ballot. According to Cannon, it was "a resounding and unnecessary defeat" brought about by the failure of Reagan's aides to advise him properly on political risks. But Reagan had called Proposition 1 "a oncein- a-lifetime opportunity." Taxpayer revolt would gain greater steam in the late 1970s with Proposition 13 (passed June 1978), supported by Reagan and considered the opening wedge in a national trend of tax limitation. Proposition 13 limited only property taxes; Reagan sought with Proposition 1 to limit overall state taxing and spending. Proposition 1 would have had a better chance had it simply capped, rather than trying to roll back, state spending and taxing.

Nevertheless, one wonders whether Proposition 1 was not an inevitable and essential part of the Reagan saga. When he took office, Reagan dealt with the existing imbalance of the California budget by raising taxes; later legislation provided some tax relief, but California taxes and spending were greater in relation to state personal income at the end of his tenure than at the start. With Proposition 1, Reagan tried to limit and eventually reduce the state's tax and spending burden. It thus foreshadowed not only Reagan's support for California's Prop 13 but his support as president for the national balanced budget and tax limitation amendment.

The signature tax initiative of Reagan's presidency was his initial, across-the-board income tax cuts. Domestic spending control was more difficult, and Reagan did not get all the spending reductions for which he asked—either in 1981 or in later years. In 1982, the proposed constitutional amendment to limit taxes and balance the budget passed the Senate but failed in the House. "I think we have learned," he wrote R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator, in 1983, "that government's wants are limitless." Although domestic spending was reduced during Reagan's presidency by 1.5 percentage points of GDP, it increased to its old levels and beyond during the Bush and Clinton eras. Reagan's support of Proposition 1, like his support of the constitutional amendment in 1982, expressed his fundamental belief in the importance of external limits on taxes and spending.

Cannon's original reason for writing about Reagan was, he tells us in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, to explain to himself a phenomenon he did not entirely understand, and in his latest book he continues that quest. In Governor Reagan Cannon gets closer, perhaps as close as anyone ever has, to the central puzzle of this man who was so successful and managed to accomplish so much, yet seemed so casual, so amiable, and seemed to bear the burdens of office so lightly. This in fact was the central conclusion of Cannon's major book about the Reagan presidency: that "he took his role too lightly," and "[i]n the end, it proved too big for his talents."

That was Cannon's verdict on the Reagan presidency in 1991. One wonders if he would write that today, or even whether he would choose acting as the central metaphor for Reagan's presidency. Although it was a few more months until the Berlin Wall fell and almost two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, Ronald Reagan's administration laid the groundwork for these shattering developments. What was achieved during those years was the capstone of the most significant political story of the 20th century—the triumph of free markets and democracy over totalitarian forms of government, both fascist and Communist.

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Reagan's presidency and the ideas that drove it are central to our understanding of our country and its role in the world. But what did Reagan himself have to do with it all? Had he been merely an "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford famously called him—an empty suit, a reader of others' lines— Reagan could be written out of history, ignored except for his talent at communicating our own sentiments to ourselves. Indeed, to write Reagan out of history was, I think, the hidden agenda of the two-part mini-series CBS was to have shown on prime-time television during the 2003 November sweeps. Had he also been meanspirited and uncaring, as the CBS mini-series portrayed him, we need not even like him.

If Reagan was pivotal to the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism, then he is crucial to the history of the 20th century, and everything we can know about him—as we seek to know about the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—becomes relevant. We want to know about his growing up, his experiences and views, what he thought and read and wrote, and, above all, what he did.

In other words, Reagan's biography is important. Cannon's writings, including this most recent book, are based on many interviews (30 of them with Reagan, before the presidency), extensive reporting, and the examination of thousands of documents privately and publicly held. Lou Cannon is our most trustworthy source on Ronald Reagan, whether we agree with all his judgments or not. As Cannon has said, the facts are the facts for conservatives and liberals alike.