Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency

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Larry Berman, ed. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Summary

Edited by Larry Berman, “Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency” contains numerous articles analyzing Reagan’s Presidency. Written in 1990, less than two years after Reagan left office, the book attempts to understand how the Reagan Administration worked, and what its legacy will be. To accomplish this mission, the book is edited into four sections; foreign policy, economic and fiscal policy, institutional changes, and electoral and congressional relations. In each section there are several articles discussing topics relevant to that section. For example, in the section relating to foreign policy, one of the articles attack’s the Administration’s foreign policy goals in Latin America.

In the beginning of the book, Berman makes the argument that Reagan is perhaps the most influential president since Franklin Roosevelt, and discusses the various aspects and contradictions of the Reagan Presidency that have, and will continue to shape the modern presidency. There are several aspects of the Reagan Presidency that he discusses in detail and argues that they will have an impact on the future of the Presidency. One of these areas is communication; in this section Berman discusses how Reagan used his communication skills while President to advance his political goals. Later in the book it is argued that while Regan’s communication skills helped him become elected and later reelected, it was mostly because of Reagan’s likeability, not his political views. To give evidence to this argument, the book illustrates that despite Reagan’s popularity, the Republican Party was never able to gain control of the House of Representatives during his time in office, and lost control of the Senate in 1986.

Another aspect of Reagan’s Presidency that is discussed by Berman, and is a theme throughout many of the other articles, is Reagan’s management style. This discussion centers on Reagan’s hands off style of management and his detachment from handling many day to day decisions. This left many decisions in the hands of Reagan’s top advisors. During Reagan’s first term the White House was led by the “troika” of Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver, and James Baker. These men were able to skillfully lead the Administration to many of its legislative victories during his first term. These successes were important for the Presidency as an institution. After the problems of the 1970’s, during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations, many started believing that the Presidency was a job not suited to one individual. After Reagan’s first term, Don Regan became Chief of Staff while members of the “troika” moved on to other positions. While Regan was Chief of Staff, the problem with Reagan’s management style was illustrated in the Iran-Contra affair, which Reagan was left unaware of. The fact that Reagan was unaware of the situation illustrated how dependent he was on his staff, and the problems that arose from his management style.

In regards to foreign policy, the book contains three articles pertaining to foreign policy. The three topics are relations with Latin America, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. In the article about U.S. relations with Latin America, for example, the author criticizes the Administration’s policy of supported dictatorships simply because they were anti-communist. However, in the article about U.S. relationships with the Middle East, the book argues that more could have been accomplished at the Reagan could have taken a more activist role. Other areas discussed in the book include the government’s fiscal and monetary policy during the Reagan Administration, and the Administration’s method of selecting nominee’s for federal judiciary nominations. The article relating to judicial nominations explains how in depth the screening process had become to ensure that a nominee met a certain criteria. Overall, the articles illustrate how Reagan was able to significantly change the Presidency.


Commentary

Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

Despite being written over 15 years ago, “Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency” is still able to give a detailed analysis of the workings on the Reagan Presidency. I would recommend the book, and its articles, to an individual who is trying to get an in depth understanding of how the Reagan administration operated. However, because the book was written in 1990, much of the observations regarding the impact of the Reagan administration are rather dated. One aspect of this that is clearly evident is the argument that Reagan’s election and subsequent landslide re-election in 1984 were a result of Reagan’s personality rather than growing support for conservative ideas and principals. The rational for this argument was that despite Reagan’s popularity, Republicans were never able to gain a majority in the House of Representatives and lost their majority in the Senate in 1986. While this argument was certainly understandable in 1990, I would argue that after the Republican Party gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, that it would no longer be acceptable. Although there were many factors that caused the Republican Party to gain control of Congress in 1994, I would argue that Reagan’s impact on the American political scene played an important role. Although this is one example, I would argue that while the book gives the reader an impressive account of the Reagan Administration, the conclusions drawn about the influence of the Reagan Presidency are now out of date.

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