By William F. Buckley Jr.
Basic Books, 278 pp. $25
Reviewed by Paul Davis
Trust William F. Buckley Jr. to try to get in the last contrary word. While the country is about to usher in President Barack Obama, rated by the National Journal as the most liberal U.S. Senator in 2007, a posthumous book appears from the conservative author, editor, columnist and TV host on his special relationship with a conservative icon: former President Ronald Reagan.
This is not a book just for conservatives. Both Buckley and Reagan had many friends of all political persuasions, and Buckley writes about many of the political and cultural personalities of the Reagan years. The story of the Buckley-Reagan friendship is a compelling one, and the book is an entertaining look back at the Reagan era. This is Buckley's personal summing up of both Reagan and his times.
In his 55th and final book, Buckley draws on speeches, columns, transcripts of public affairs TV programs, personal reminiscences, and private letters between himself and Reagan to offer an insightful portrait of a 30-year friendship and political alliance between the premier conservative intellectual writer and the premier conservative political figure of the late 20th century.
From their first meeting in 1961, when Reagan was still a Democrat, through Reagan's tenure as governor of California (1967-1975) and U.S. president (1981-1989), Buckley and Reagan remained close friends. Buckley was also close to Nancy Reagan, and their letters to each other often contained a running joke about a planned romantic liaison in Casablanca. Buckley and his wife, Pat, frequently dined with the Reagans, and the families vacationed together. Buckley writes about Reagan's problems with his children, and how he acted as a family confidant over one Thanksgiving weekend.
It should come as no surprise, considering the keen wit and sense of humor of both Reagan and Buckley, that the book is often amusing. Great and serious issues are of course discussed throughout, but ribbing and joking pepper the political and policy discussions.
Buckley and Reagan did not always agree. For example, the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties placed them on opposite sides of a burning issue in 1977. Buckley arranged for a debate between them on public television, and he writes about the lively and illuminating event that ensued. In Buckley's view, the Panama Canal issue helped Reagan become president.
Reagan biographer Edmund Morris claimed that Reagan was a mystery to him - but Buckley, I believe, provides a clear portrait of our 40th president in this book. He called Reagan the nicest man who ever occupied the White House, and assures us that the private Reagan was as positive and sunny as the public Reagan we all knew.
"Ronald Reagan had strategic vision," Buckley writes. "He told us that most of our civic problems were problems brought on or exacerbated by government, not problems that could be solved by government. That of course is enduringly true. Only government can cause inflation, preserve monopoly, and punish enterprise. On the other hand, it is only a government leader who can put a stamp on the national mood. . . . Reagan's period was brief, but he did indeed put his stamp on it. He did this in part because he was scornful of the claims of omnipotent government, in part because he felt, and expressed, the buoyancy of the American Republic."
We are about to embark on an era of big-government solutions, so perhaps this is a good time to read
The Reagan I Knew
and revisit an era in which things were quite different.