How the Reagan Revolution fizzled to its end

It should come as no surprise that Lou Cannon, the premier biographer of Ronald Reagan, has also written the best book so far about the presidency of George W. Bush. Only this time, he has enlisted his son Carl to provide a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the beleaguered 43rd president as his administration enters its final phase.

 Nobody knows Reagan better than the elder Cannon, who wrote five books about the Gipper while covering him in California and Washington for California newspapers and as White House correspondent for The Washington Post. But he needed help from his son, White House correspondent for the National Journal and co-author of a book about Karl Rove, to produce a balanced and informed view of the Bush White House.

 Contrary to some other Bush biographers, the father-son duo argues that the key to explaining Bush and his presidency is to be found not in Freudian interpretations of the relationship between him and his father, but in the fact that he tried — and failed — to emulate Reagan’s conservative agenda on taxes, social policy and America’s place in the world.

 The Cannons conclude that the younger Bush’s historical legacy is likely to be diminished because he strayed from Reagan’s unwavering conservative vision after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while trying to avoid what he saw as the domestic and foreign policy mistakes of his two predecessors, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

 The title of the Cannons’ book pretty much says it all. In a chapter about Iraq, the event that more than any other shaped Bush’s presidency, they write: “By March 2003, it’s fair to say that George W. Bush was no longer attempting to emulate Reagan as much as he was trying to avoid what he saw as the mistakes in Iraq and the greater Middle East made by his father and by Bill Clinton. No longer Reagan’s disciple, he was his own man — for better or worse.”

 Unfortunately for Bush, it was the latter. While Reagan had portrayed the war in Vietnam as a “noble” if misguided effort by brave young American troops to confront communism in Southeast Asia, Bush should have “reminded Americans of the other half of the equation: how hard it is to impose democracy at the point of gun, the danger of entering a faraway culture’s civil war, and the cost to our own Republic of expending treasure and lives for a purpose that does not succeed.” Instead, he did not.

 But the Cannons’ book goes well beyond a critical examination of Bush’s controversial policies at home and abroad and his reliance on massive deficit spending to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also provide historical perspective by explaining how “the tectonic plates in American politics were shifting” as the old Republican Party of Tom Dewey, Robert Taft and Nelson Rockefeller became the party of Barry Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan. As they put it, “the Republican sea change can be chronicled through the actions of three generations of Bush political candidates,” from Bush’s grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, to the first President Bush and then to himself.

They also offer critical insights into contemporary politics as they chronicle Bush’s transition from compassionate conservative and bipartisan “uniter, not a divider” to the most divisive and unpopular president since Richard Nixon.

 “As 2003 turned into 2004 and the Iraq War began to stall, it was as if Bush didn’t understand what made him so popular in the first place … especially when Bush served notice within hours of the 2004 reelection that he believed he had been given an unqualified mandate to keep to his chosen course,” the Cannons write, noting his razor-thin margin of victory.

 By 2007, the ambitious agenda Bush laid out for his second term — win the war on terror, reform Social Security, enact permanent tax cuts — had been blocked by the Democratic Congress, making the outlook for his final months in office bleak. The authors do acknowledge that future historians may treat Bush more kindly than their contemporaries, depending out the outcome of the war in Iraq, among other things. But they offer a harsh judgment of the Bush presidency as it nears its end.

 “Bush was Reagan’s disciple, to be sure, but he did not face the seminal crises of his administration — especially the Iraq War — with the blend of principle and pragmatism that was the hallmark of Reagan’s dealings with the Soviet Union,” they write. “We do not fault Bush’s 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.”