- - Sunday, July 8, 2018



By Laurence R. Jurdem

University Press of Kentucky, $45.00, 260 pages

Political popularity is mostly written in sand. As personal auras fade, solid accomplishments count for more and tabloid charisma for less. Consider the cases of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The only Americans alive today who could have voted for Ike when he ran for re-election in 1956 are in their early 80s or older. Anyone old enough to have voted for JFK in 1960 would now be 79 or older.

As long as living memory of Mr. Kennedy — the handsome, youthful president with a glamorous wife, an adoring press corps and a tragic, premature death — abided, JFK ranked high with the public, journalists and historians. This despite the scanty achievements and very mixed results of his aborted presidency.

In recent years, however, as the celebrity glow has dimmed, Mr. Kennedy’s stock has fallen. Meanwhile, Dwight Eisenhower’s standing as the brilliant World War II commander of the largest allied military effort in history and a first executive who kept America safe, prosperous, at peace and respected has steadily risen.

The Johnson and Nixon presidencies are mostly viewed as dynamic but flawed, Jimmy Carter as an embarrassing if well-intended accident. Both Bushes are widely perceived as personally upright leaders of limited vision, Bill Clinton as a clever but amoral Bubba. Barack Obama is already more remembered for breaking the color barrier on his way to the White House than for anything he accomplished after he got there. The jury is still out on the rather surreal current occupant. Donald Trump is very much a frenetic work in progress.

Which leaves us with Ronald Reagan, whose eight years in office marked the restoration of American prestige and self-confidence, not to mention the peaceful implosion of the Evil Empire. What made the Reagan presidency the success that it was?

From 1981 through 1983 I had the chance to observe the man at close quarters as his director of presidential speechwriting. To my mind Ronald Reagan had three great strengths: He was committed to a solid set of moral beliefs and principles; he was a man of character who always put his duty before personal popularity or political expediency; and he was one of those rare, rather fortunate souls whose inner qualities shine on the outside.

People saw and sensed that he was a good man who could be trusted. Ronald Reagan was everybody’s ideal grandfather, a patriarch both warm and wise.

Now independent scholar Louis R. Jurdem has produced a book that goes a long way to explaining how a man who began his adult life as a New Deal Democrat, gradually evolved — through a process of independent thinking and lots of outside reading — a humane, conservative world view. Mr. Jurdem does this by focusing on the leading roles of three small but influential publications that helped to shape and articulate Ronald Reagan’s own intuitive and practical grasp of conservatism: National Review, Human Events and Commentary.

“While these publications did not have a large circulation,” Mr. Jurdem writes, “that was never their objective. Their respective editors focused on key policymakers and activists and, thereby, created a platform to influence public policy and gain a certain amount of political power During his presidency, Ronald Reagan never forgot his debt to the publications of conservative opinion for the ideas they had championed, which became the foundation of his administration.”

I can attest to that. When National Review opened its first Washington bureau in 1983, President Reagan accepted an invitation to celebrate the occasion and I had the pleasure of drafting his remarks. As was always the case when they dealt with a subject close to his heart, the Gipper added a number of personal touches. “I think you know that National Review is my favorite magazine,” he quipped. “I’ve even paid the ultimate compliment of commandeering two of your longtime contributors, Aram Bakshian and Tony Dolan, on our White House staff.”

Most great moments in history are years in the making. Ronald Reagan’s Cold War triumph was no exception. If he seized the moment by telling Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” it was only after years of reflection and experience shaped by the writing of major conservative figures like Bill Buckley, James Burnham and so many others. Laurence Jurdem has done an outstanding job of documenting a unique, symbiotic relationship that not only made history, but changed it for the better.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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