No historian has done a better job of chronicling Ronald Reagan’s rise to power than Craig Shirley.
As always, Shirley is a perfect antidote to the “court historians” who never really “got” Reagan. Shirley’s books on Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, Reagan’s Revolution and Rendezvous With Destiny, are the gold standard in describing the Gipper’s ascendance and successful capture of the White House.
However, Shirley’s latest book, Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan, takes a decidedly different track.
Last Act is the first book to focus on Reagan’s post-presidential life and demonstrates that his importance extended far beyond the eight years he held America’s highest elective office. Though Reagan retreated entirely to private life after his heartbreaking Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, it can be argued that his reputation and legacy grew even from the lofty heights of his presidency during these years.
The Great Communicator’s great ideas gave America a refreshed sense of purpose in the final days of the Cold War, the economy roared back to life and boomed in the 1990s—making Americans nearly forget the malaise of the 1970s—and the military regained the strength and self-respect that had eroded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Reagan was not just a successful Commander-in-Chief, he was a transformative figure who altered the trajectory of the United States and the free world. As a Chicago Tribune eulogy put it, “[Reagan] will be remembered as one of the nation’s most influential and successful presidents. If you want to see Ronald Reagan’s legacy, just look around.”
As Shirley makes clear in his narrative, Reagan was never understood by the liberal media elite, nor the Republican establishment. To them, his rise was puzzling and disturbing; they never understood why the American people had such affection for a man political insiders wrote off as an intellectual lightweight and a dinosaur from a different era. But Shirley explains how Reagan was seen by most Americans, especially conservatives outside the corridors of power.
“The outsiders to Washington and the GOP, who embraced federalism and individuality—American conservatism—said Reaganism was an ideology for the ages; a healthy skepticism of centralized authority or, even worse, a police state, yet without the anarchy of the absence of government,” Shirley explained. “Maximum ‘freedom consistent with law and order’ as Reagan said in 1964.”
Reagan’s connection with the American people couldn’t have been more clear than what was on display in the sudden, enormous outpouring of appreciation that burst forth when Reagan died in 2004. Shirley movingly describes how Americans from all walks of life, from old guard Reagan campaign operatives, to heads of state, to average American citizens, desperately wanted to pay tribute to this man who restored their faith in the United States.
Reagan pushed American conservatism in a populist direction and away from the “watered-down collectivist direction” preferred by Republican insiders. Shirley wrote how upon Reagan’s death, many in the mainstream media were blindsided by the deep American desire to commemorate a man they tried to write off as a B-list actor and mediocre president. Yet, some fair-minded media liberals understood the potency of Reagan’s message and why it resonated even a decade after he retreated from public life. Reagan swayed his party away from elitism and was able to connect with an enormous number of Democrat voters, not just conservative activists and long-time Republicans. Shirley wrote that Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne praised Reagan, saying that he “had the New Deal bred in his bones and could talk to Democrats like a Democrat, and in a way no Republican has matched since.”
It was Reagan who made the term “liberal” deeply unpopular, and successfully characterized the left-wing creed in America as a symbol of “nerdy out of touch bureaucrats (‘faceless bureaucrats’ as Reagan used to deride them) and frazzled, obnoxious out-of-touch college professors.” Reagan made the American Left return to the root term for their movement, “progressive,” a term they abandoned when it previously became unpalatable to the American electorate.
But Reagan did not just make conservatism and the Republican party “popular,” he reestablished it based on deep-seated principles harkening back to the Founding Fathers. Railing against elites was one thing, but injecting true conservative principles—limited government, federalism, individual as opposed to collective rights—was at the heart of the message he wished to bring to the American people. This is why Reagan was always insistent that a party platform was extremely important, it’s why in his final presidential address he insisted that though he was known as the Great Communicator he hoped he would be truly known for communicating great ideas.
Reagan had an almost unique ability to go around the media establishment and speak directly to American citizens; in doing so he discredited the worn out ideas shared by the American elite. In circumventing the liberal media, Reagan brought the ideas of William F. Buckley and National Review to the forefront of American politics.
Shirley writes about how even 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had to be wary around Reagan’s legacy. As far to the left the party had drifted, there was still a huge number of Democrat voters whom admired Reagan. Though no bearer of the Reagan “mantle,” Kerry used Reagan’s reputation as a way to bludgeon his Republican presidential opponent George W. Bush. The two campaigns used Reagan’s legacy to attack one another, but in Shirley’s estimation neither could truly be considered Reaganesque.
For instance, George W. Bush, whom Shirley described as the most big government president “since Richard Nixon,” took a decidedly un-Reagan-like approach to the 2007 financial crisis—he bailed out Wall Street. Shirley contrasts the Wall Street bailout to Reagan’s reaction to 1987’s “Black Monday” in which the stock market dropped by 22 percent.
The Chicken Littles were out in force, squeaking, crying, chirping, and whining that Reagan needed to do this and Reagan needed to do that and Reagan needed to panic like the rest of them. Reagan simply said, “No.”
“Within days, the markets calmed down and in less than a year, nearly all investors recovered their temporary losses,” Shirley wrote.
Reagan followed the model set by president Martin Van Buren in the 1830s, not Herbert Hoover in the 1930s—he decided to let markets take their course rather than attempt massive government intervention. The 1990s went on to be a decade of plenty and prosperity.
Though heavy on establishing Reagan’s long-term impact on the United States, Last Act is not just about ideas and politics. Shirley does an excellent job describing Reagan the man, who took phone calls from regular people at his ranch post-presidency and treated others—whether heads of state, his Secret Service detail, or his gardner—with equal respect. Reagan comes off as a quintessential American of the Silent Generation—kind, generous, unpretentious—Reagan had an outward-looking self-confidence so common before America’s cultural revolution.
Reagan’s funeral features prominently in Shirley’s narrative and while discussing the events surrounding the massive undertaking of a state funeral he also describes the state of America in 2004. Touching eulogies from closest friends and old opponents demonstrated how wide Reagan’s impact had been. And much like the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which showed thousands of ordinary Americans lining roads to pay tribute to the fallen—Reagan’s funeral demonstrated that this country still remembers and honors its heroes.
What is clear is that while Reagan had not been on the mind of most of the world during his retreat to public life, his death launched a sudden and dramatic reacquaintance with the man and his principles.
As Americans begin the arduous process of deciding who will become the next commander-in-chief, Shirley’s Last Act provides great insight into the character and principles of this country’s last great president. Reagan was certainly the right man for the right time in American history. In a nod to Winston Churchill, Reagan was once called the “last lion of the 20th century;” America is still looking for the first lion of the 21st.
Follow Jarrett Stepman on Twitter:@JarrettStepman. Reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.