Shortly after Ronald Reagan took office as governor of California in 1967, a group of reporters (including this reviewer) were questioning one of his top aides on a television panel about the radical Reagan plans to make drastic cuts in the state bureaucracy, wholly revamp the welfare system, trim the property tax, and imposed new fees on university students.
After a lively on-camera session, the Reagan aide took the reporters aside and chided: "The trouble with you fellows in that you don't know the difference between a conservative and a reactionary."
For almost 15 years of his elected career, Ronald Reagan has kept reporters and political analysts off-base as to his real political stripes. as governor of the nation's most populous state, his rhetoric was particularly hard-line -- especially in the beginning. He talked or radical ways of cutting costs, "getting government off the backs of the people." But when push came to shove, he was ready to compromise with Democratic legislators on fiscal and other matters. He ended up imposing a state withholding tax -- (something his democratic predecessor, Edmund G. Brown Sr., admittedly had little chance of doing after preaching a pay-as-you-go philosophy in almost reverent terms).
State budgets actually increased and welfare payments to some (usually the most needy) were hiked. But Governor Reagan still preached "cut, slice, and trim" public costs, and let natural forces restore the health of the economy.
Reagan always said his program would work for the nation the same way it worked for California. (There are those who facetiously agree.)
Now he has his chance. What have the first seven-plus months of the Reagan administration shown? Is the new President really a moderate in conservative and sometimes reactionary, garb? Does he mean what he says about revamping the economy, restoring the nation's military strength, and taking social initiatives which would squelch permissiveness, and restore traditional "family" values?
You bet, say veteran political analysts Evans and Novak in their new book. The Washington Post syndicated columnists insist that the Reagan administration offers the greatest promise of revolutionary change in government since the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. And, further, they point out that the present agenda for change is even more "remarkable" than that of the New Deal because it comes not during the throes of a depression and national crisis but at a time of relative affluence.
However, if America is disgruntled and frustrated by the economic squeeze at home and lack of US credibility abroad, it still does not see itself on the brink of diaster. But Ronald Reagan does. He says his reign may be the nation's "last chance" to right its fiscal ship and regain its global leadership.
Evans and Novak launch into a prolonged, if a bit tedious, discussion of supply-side economics and the rationale for budget director David Stockman's highly controversial fiscal "manifesto." There are some strong hints of where the nation is headed economically and in foreign policy. But the authors never really point this out. (It may be significant that this book was originally subtitled: "A Blueprint for the Next Four Years," but this was abandoned for the more modest one.)
The Reagan Revolution is very much ideological and real, insist the authors. And politicians and the public shouldn't be fooled by occasionally "moderate" dialogue on the pat of the President or his aides, nor should they confuse the occasional willingness to compromise with a lack of conviction on the part of the new chief executive.
But Evans and Novak do suggest that this revolutionary verve is not pervasive among the White House inner circle. In fact, they say it is so personal with Ronald Reagan that, had he not survived the attempts on his life, only David Stockman and Interior Secretary James Watt could have been counted on to carry forth the Reagan commitment. Vice-President George Bus and top aides James Baker and Ed Meece are supportive but not really imbued with this almost-evangelical spirit of change, the authors say.
If "The Reagan Revolution" is provocative (though sometimes slow-moving and disappointing), "Blue Smoke and Mirrors" offers readers little promise of breaking new ground. What it does is serve up a delightful repast of amusing and often telling anecdotes, as it prances us down the Republican and Democratic primary paths and finally on to the broader general election trail.
Its thesis is simple: Jimmy Carter was ousted from the While House partly because he failed to get the American hostages freed before the election, but more generally because he had lost the confidence of the American people in his ability to lead.
And Ronald Reagan won, insist Germond and Witcover (Formerly the double-bylined columnist of the now defunct Washington Star), because his opponent was not successful in making him the main referendum at the ballot box. Reagan's victory was ensured by the presidential debate in Cleveland, they say (and other agree), when the GOP candidate successfully dissipated the black cloud that had long hung over him (in the eyes of voters): that he was an extremist who might accidently plunge the nation into war.
Germond and Witcover take us behind the scenes of the complicated and sometimes amusing negotiations at the Republican convention, where it seemed for awhile that a Reagan-Ford ticket would be forged.They also recount how Reagan's often worried campaign staff conspired to reduce the number of their candidate's gaffes and sometimes unscheduled off-the-record (and embarrassing) impromptu statements along the campaign trail.
"Blue Smoke and Mirrors" also ably analyzes the bitter Kennedy-Carter primary battle, which left the latter with what turned out to be a hollow nomination and the former ironically with increased political muscle in defeat.
Both books come to similar conclusions. The mandate last November was substantial, and it was for change. But it was more of a personal victory for Ronald Reagan than an indication of a strong ideological swing to the political "right."
The initiative is now Reagan's. Despite early budget victories over Congress , the fiscal battle admittedly will be fought each year. And the social issues -- those pushed hard by the Moral Majority and other right-wing groups that backed the Republican -- have yet to be addressed.
Other recent books offering valuable insight into the life and times of Reagan include Bill Boyarsky's "Ronald Reagan: His Life and Rise to the Presidency" (Random House); "Reagan, the Man, the President" (Macmillan) by a group of New York Times reporters; and "The Future Under President Reagan" (Arlington House) edited by Wayne Valis.