The hardest thing to keep front-of-mind when reading conservative writers like Craig Shirley is that I'm not his intended audience. And I think it's only fair that I judge his book accordingly. Shirley's Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980 is not intended as a scholarly account of what frames as Reagan's wilderness years. Nor is it a book written for someone to the left of center.
I'm doing my best to read this as someone sympathetic to a pro-Reagan narrative might, while, of course, calling him out for factual errors whenever needed. This makes it easier to understand his framing when he writes, "Everywhere he went, everywhere he spoke, cops, flight attendants, housewives, doormen, farmers, cleaning women, waitresses, executives, Americans from all walks of life implored him to run for president....just one more time. 'Governor, you've got to do it!' Reagan heard this everywhere he went." I can see the inspirational passion in this passage, even if my left-of-center eyes wanted to roll while reading it. Although it's not for me, I can understand why this is an exciting piece of Shirley's narrative. It's building to something important.
That said, I had a more difficult time when Shirley strayed into some factually suspect claims. In discussing the Carter administration, for example, he casts the new President as a typical free-spending liberal. There are many, many things to critique about the Carter presidency, but the facts show that he was actually fiscally conservative. So much so, that he alienated his base and jeopardized his chance at re-election.
I'm also not comfortable with overstatement. In explaining Reagan's plans in the aftermath of his primary loss to Gerald Ford in 1976, Shirley writes, "Meanwhile, the man who would soon bring about the Soviet Union's destruction was rallying the remnants of conservatism to an optimistic vision of a confident and prosperous America." Reagan was surely an important player in the end of the Cold War, but it feels like a slight to all the people involved to credit any one man with the collapse of the Soviet state. I think Shirley could have made his point without elevating Reagan to such heights.
Criticism aside, this is a fascinating read--both in the insight it provides into conservative perceptions of history, and how it also makes we wonder if I look past similar issues in writing from the Left.