Wednesday, 1 October 2008

"Reagan's Disciple", by Lou Cannon & Carl M. Cannon (PublicAffairs Books)

Detailed comparison between the saint of the political right and the demon of the political left

"George W. Bush, the son of President George H.W. Bush, modeled - or tried to model - his presidency not after his father's but after Ronald Reagan's."

The father-son team of Lou and Carl Cannon have written an insightful, in depth examination of George W. Bush's impact on the policies and political realities brought into being during Reagan's two terms in office, and they suggest that Bush will not likely enjoy the redeemed, post-presidential reputations of Truman or Reagan. The purpose of the book is also to examine the proposition that Reagan would have the same or similar approach if he faced the same crises as Bush. It does this through an examination of Reagan and Bush's foreign and domestic policies, sprinkled with background detail and information.

The first three chapters provide plenty of background , including a short history of the last three Bush generations (Senator Prescott, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W.), describing a decline in prestige and political power, and a considerable swing towards ever-more conservative beliefs with each successive generation; a rundown of Reagan's life and journey to the White House, as well as what he "wrought" in office; and then an analysis of the "Three Presidencies of George W. Bush", where the authors detail the three distinct phases of the current administration.

The book provides a very balanced view, and it is clear that the Cannons have some fondness for the 40th president - Lou Cannon, after all, covered his life for 36 years, and has written five previous books on Reagan. Carl Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal and is therefore well versed on all things George W. Bush. I imagine the chapters were split between them in this manner, and the Bush chapters - to me - are more readable, with a far more fluid and journalistic style, while the Reagan chapters seem to be a little bit more ponderous. (It is quite possible this is due to my being more familiar with the George W Bush presidency than Reagan's.)

The Cannons tell us that Reagan was far less ideological than many would have us believe, and he showed far more caution than he is remembered for (though, this caution was largely during his second term). Bush, on the other hand, has proven himself to be highly ideological and far more (some might say dangerously more) ambitious than the man he tried to model himself after. This has led to partisan governing (largely led by Karl Rove's wedge-issue and riling-up-the-base approach to national politics) and the collapse of the bipartisan support the president enjoyed in the wake of 9/11.

The book acknowledges that Bush has done a great deal to advance the Reagan Revolution in a number of ways - examples given are the Democrats inability to rescind Bush's tax-cuts, and the fact that the judiciary is far more conservative than it was in Reagan's years. The Cannons also accept that Bush had good intentions, "but noble intentions do not excuse his performance in Iraq or the domestic failures of his second term. Nor do they explain his refusal to learn from his mistakes."

Reagan's Disciple has the unusual distinction of having content that will appeal to both die-hard conservatives (the praise-worthy passages about Reagan) and also the Democratic, liberal left (basically everything about the current president). Anecdotes about Reagan will amuse, but the anecdotes about Bush will not. To be clear, though, this is not an anti-Bush screed, the Cannon's are both fair and balanced when discussing (and criticising) Bush's record and actions as president.

Reagan's Disciple is extremely well written. It is both academic and journalistic in style. Due to the sheer amount of information the authors have packed into here, the book is neither a quick read, but nor is it a struggle to get through. It is well worth reading if you have any interest in what Bush has done to harm the cause he claimed to represent. With extensive background information and use of putting current events into their historical context, the book will also appeal to those interested in the evolution of presidential power and politics, as well as how the study of the presidency has evolved over time.

Balanced, discursive, authoritative, full of insight and detail, and drawing on extensive reporting and historical context and analysis, Reagan's Disciple is a fascinating look at both the 40th and 43rd presidents. Highly recommended.

Also try: Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime; Sean Wilentz's The Age of Reagan; Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy; Robert Draper's Dead Certain; Craig Unger The Fall of the House of Bush; Bob Woodward's State Of Denial; Zbigniew Brzezinski's Second Chance

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