A staple of 21st century Democratic political strategy involves body-snatching Ronald Reagan by figures who opposed him politically during his presidency. Unable to rationalize away his continuing popularity and eager to keep President Bush’s poll numbers low, Democratic leaders like John Kerry and Howard Dean now credit Reagan with ending the Cold War without firing a shot. During the 2006 Virginia senatorial campaign, James Webb, who in 1988 resigned his post as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, aired a beyond-the-grave endorsement from Reagan in the form of comments made before Webb’s celebrated departure from Reagan’s Cabinet -- this despite protests from Nancy Reagan.
John Patrick Diggins’ new biography of Reagan continues this body-snatching trend. The book reads like a campaign memo to Democrats in 2008. Evident in every page documenting Reagan’s willingness to negotiate and his fears of the state, is the subliminal -- and not so subliminal -- message that Democrats should shed any lingering resentments of Reagan’s presidency and instead capitalize on it for political advantage.
As the author of the Promise of Pragmatism, a philosophical study of pragmatism in America’s political tradition, Diggins might have used his appreciation of that uniquely American philosophy as an escape hatch to avoid charges that he is simply campaigning for Democrats. In this treatment, instead, Diggins takes the Democratic strategy one step further, claiming that Reagan was more liberal than conservative.
Unfortunately, Diggins’ scholarship leaves much to be desired. For instance, he asserts that Reagan tried to join the Communist Party in the late 1930s, despite having only one source, the novelist Howard Fast. But even Fast’s supporters say that he was inventing such episodes all the time. He can hardly be considered a definitive source.
Elsewhere, Diggins asserts that Reagan came to his anti-communism solely through reading such doom-and-gloom writers as Whittaker Chambers. In fact, Reagan pointed out, on the eve of his summit with Gorbachev, that he learned how to deal with communists through battles with Hollywood Stalinists during the film industry’s labor troubles in the forties. Rolling back the Stalinist takeover of the industry unions was a victory for Reagan, one that fed his optimism about the mortality of communism and ultimately pushed him toward the conservative camp.
But even if it were true that Reagan was a pessimist during the Cold War, as Diggins claims, it does not follow that Democrats were the party of optimism. Liberals in the 20th century made plenty of pessimistic comments about Cold War America, from J. William Fulbright’s “crippled giant” remark to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” among his citizens. Moreover, when liberals such as Lyndon Johnson did display optimism, as when he predicted in 1964 that one day the government would take away the worries of all citizens, it sent a chill up the spine of Americans with a libertarian streak. By contrast, what Diggins sees as Reagan’s conservative pessimism was really a cautious attitude toward state power, a view as old as the country’s republican Founders.
Despite covering much of the 20th century, Diggins’ book is very much a period piece. Specifically, it represents a desperate time for Democrats. Eager to regain the presidency, they are happy to appropriate the legacy of Ronald Reagan if it means restoring them to power. In the forward, Diggins admits to admiring Reagan after his time in office. But one suspects that what Diggins really admires about Reagan is not his political career but his enduring popularity.