Morning in America

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Gil Troy. Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980's. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 417 p. $29.95. ISBN 0691096457

Contents

Summary

Gil Troy writes a favorable account of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the conservative counterrevolution that confounded liberals who attributed Reagan's success to luck and a dumb electorate. Troy says, "Rather than rethinking liberal fundamentals, Democrats preferred to caricature Reagan as a lucky boob whose public relations elixir bewitched Americans." (p. 9) Troy finds that Reagan was consistently underestimated and had considerably more depth than commonly thought. Troy titles his book Morning in America, using a term that he defines as "the great party known as the 1980's, when the stock market soared, patriotism surged, the Soviet Union crumbled, and America thrived." (p. 12)

In his introduction, Troy looks at the 1980's as a phenomenon of the Reagan presidency, arguing that Ronald Reagan's symbolic brand of politics defined the 1980's. He argues, "Not only were Reagan's prosperity-filled, budget-busting, government-bashing, nation-building, image-making, morale-boosting, flag-waving, cold war-ending eight years defining, but Reagan and Reaganism still influence the White House." (p. 5) In terms of pushing the power of the Presidency, Troy ranks Reagan with FDR and Andrew Jackson. On the other side of mornng in America, however, Troy says, "But there was mourning in America, too, as the social pathologies of crime, drugs, ghettoization, failing schools, family breakdown, and ineffectual immigration policies persisted along with a growing superficiality and selfishness, even hard-heartedness, as the wealthy seemed to reap Reagan's bounty disproportionately." (p. 15) Finally, Troy argues that Reagan was less a revolutionary than a pragmatist and that his personality actually gave cover for the decadence of the 1980's and the institutionalization of the 1960's, both of which thrived during the decade, and in reality the Clintonism of the 1990's was what those criticizing the excesses during the 1980's actually feared.

Even in the short time since the end of the Reagan era, a mythology has grown up around the Reagan Revolution. As Troy shows, it did not start out as a revolution. The combination of the mainstreaming of the conservative movement, transforming from the "right at any cost" Goldwaterites to the more pragmatic "Reaganites," or "Goldwater conservatism with a smile," as Troy puts it, and deep dissatisfaction with the way the country was headed under President Carter, gave Reagan a smashing victory and a Republican Senate. Though seeming to indicate a realignment in political power. Troy shows that the election was characterized more by deep dissatisfaction with both candidates, with very few Reagan voters attracted to conservatism as a cause. Thus, the Reagan era began.

The book looks at each year of the Reagan era from 1980 through 1990. In each chapter, Troy looks at the themes that defined that year, and the countervailing tendencies. In many chapters he uses a pop culture phenomenon to illustrate these themes. In 1982 he uses the show Hill Street Blues to illustrate what America thought about 1960's liberalism and Reagan's rich America. On one hand the crumbling, crime-infested housing projects illustrated the perceived failure of liberalism, and the show clearly had law enforcement as its central hero. Yet, the show also celebrated diversity, showed that it was not morning in America everywhere, and made the point that the social revolution that had started in the 1960's was alive and well. In the chapter devoted to 1983, he uses the movie The Big Chill to look at the rise of prosperity and the excessive greed that accompanied it, represented by the yuppie and the new drive toward personal wealth. The Big Chill represented a sell-out of 1960's ideals for the material wealth of the 1980's. "America's pursuit of happiness," according to Troy, "had degenerated into an obsessive pursuit of pleasure." (p. 199)

The election of 1984 marked a striking personal achievment for Ronald Reagan as he won 49 out of 50 states to defeat Walter Mondale and be reelected. Yet, as Troy notes, the Republicans actually lost one seat in the Senate and only gained back 17 House seats of the 27 they had lost in the 1982 midterm elections. This "mushy mandate," as Troy calls it, doomed Reagan's second term agenda, which would descend into a sort of chaos as the Iran-Contra affair hit.

The rest of the book follows this thematic line, looking at the dominant theme of each year along with countervailing tendencies. The chapter on 1985 looks at the multicultural America of Bill Cosby in terms of Reagan's celebrity presidency, of the politics surrounding race and the AIDS crisis and how Reagan's rhetoric alienated blacks and gays, even while those groups were making advances. The 1986 chapter portrays the excesses of Wall Street as an expression of the Reagan money culture driving a booming economy and making heros out of stock brokers, but also giving rise to corruption and scandal. Troy describes 1987 as perhaps Reagan's worst year with the Iran-Contra scandal and scandals involving religious figures Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The 1988 chapter looks at the culture wars, with debates over decency on the airwaves and labelling records for adult content, the war on drugs, and the rejection of Reagan's supreme court nominee Robert Bork, which ushered in a new era of politicizing judicial appointments. Finally, Troy writes about 1989 and 1990, President Bush's first two years in office, as an extension of the Reagan presidency.

Ultimately, Troy offers a mixed view of Reagan's legacy, repeating his assertion that Ronald Reagan was the greatest President since FDR. He argues that Reagan "...saved the Presidency from irrelevance, showing the ability to shift the national conversation and set the national tone..." (p. 347) Reagan, he argues, resurrected confidence in America, and resurrected the entrepreneurial spirit. On the other hand, he spawned a culture of self-absorption and selfishness unseen before.

Commentary

Jim Daniels, Fall 2005

It is hard for me to think of the 1980's as history. It was the first decade of my adulthood; I graduated from college in the eighties, got married in the eighties, and bought my first house in the eighties, and it is the first decade I think of in its totality in terms of how it affected me. To me the eighties is at most the recent past, not really a subject I have thought about in a historical context. Reading Morning in America:How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980's by Gil Troy has allowed me to remove the 1980's from my own experience and look at it as history (mostly).

Although I am of the opinion that Reagan's Presidency was largely harmful to the country, Troy's arguments for Reagan's importance are persuasive. While FDR's legacy endures in our internationalism, and the extent to which we tolerate government intrusion into our economic lives, a legacy the pragmatic Reagan did little to alter, Reagan's legacy endures in the way we think about America as a symbol. --kjdaniels 00:10, 6 Dec 2005 (EST)

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Troy's book combines two major themes. First, he reassesses the legacy of Ronald Reagan, finding him to be the most important president since FDR. Second, he describes the decade of the 1980s, the Reagan Era, as a watershed decade during which Reagan's softer conservatism was reconciled with 1960s liberalism. Troy integrates the story of Reagan's presidency with cuktural and social issues, celebrities, and popular entertainment. He shows how Reagan combined culture and politics with a uniquely effective style.

According to Troy, Reagan was a great teacher and preacher whose unbounded optimism restored Americans' patriotism and self-confidence following a decade of economic stagnation and foreign policy failures from Vietnam to Iran. Under Reagan the economy thrived, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and America experienced a revival of progress and prosperity that supplanted pessimism and malaise. Troy debunks the liberal Democrat view of Reagan as a "lucky boob," finding him to be "a thinker, a writer, an engaged politician." (p. 9) Troy says, "Reagan made a career of being underestimated - thanks to the ignorance of Democrats and reporters." (p. 9)

While generally praising Reagan as an effective president, Troy qualifies that praise by pointing out the shortcomings of the Reagan era. He says, "Reagan's revolution was not as dramatic as many now claim, and the morning in America was not as cloud free." (p. 13) Reagan's hands-off CEO style of management contributed to some significant failures in his administration, such as the Iran-Contra affair. His invasion of Grenada was hardly a Vietnam-balancing victory, and the retreat from Lebanon in 1983 after the loss of 243 marines was an ignominious defeat. Nevertheless, Reagn's successes outweighed his failures. Troy says, "Under Reagan's reign, the United States effectively won the cold war and experienced a resurgence of national pride." (p. 341)

Troy describes the 1980s as an era of contradictions with significant progress in some areas offset by declines in others. It was a Gilded Age of economic prosperity for the rich who got richer, but it was also a time of increased hardship for the poor, rampant crime, growing drug use, failing schools, and family breakdown. According to Troy, Reagan merged culture and politics in his presidency, transcending day-to-day politics with inspiring rhetoric calling for change and proclaiming "morning in America." Troy says, "[W]e need to recognize Reagan's presidency as a cultural and political phenomenon." (p. 11)


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

Morning in America is not your typical political biography. It provides readers with more than a standard account of Reagan's presidency. The fact that Troy has dissected each year of Reagan's two terms by looking at the cultural happenings of each makes for quite the interesting read. I found it quite interesting how he was able to link events such as the founding of CNN and MTV to the times of Reagan. I was particularly interested in his use of the movie "The Big Chill" and Ben & Jerry's ice cream to analyze how the idealism of the 1960s' was being lost by babyboomers as they joined Reagan's "real world."(115) He details the transformation of the hippies of the 1960s into the yuppies of the 1980s. Money became a driving force for this new breed. The 1980s were, according to Reagan, "a time to earn and spend freely."(118)Troy has produced a well written, extremely interesting book that appears to have been well researched. He has used an array of sources. His citations are very hard to follow. He does not use any foot or end notes throughout the text. Instead, he has chosen to use a list of citations at the end which correspond to the first few words of the quotations and references. It is a very difficult system to follow. I believe a bibliography would have been a very helpful addition to the book.

Liz Jones, Spring 2007

Previously, it was stated that Troy generally has a positive view of Reagan, with some qualifications. After reading the book, I think he has a different, more ambivalent view of the Reagan administration and its legacy. Certainly, the man presided over a fascinating epoch in American history, and he helped define American culture as it is today. In his estimation, "for better or worse, we live in a Reaganized America...We see it in how Reagan's Sun Belt conservatism continues to shine--or cast a shadow--in the courts, the Congress, and state capitals...We see it in the conspicuous spending that conintues to consume so many of us and the unwillingness of too many of us to help the less fortunate." (6) That said, it is refreshing to read an account that does not cast Reagan as stupid.

The most interesting aspect of Troy's account is how culture evolved during the 1980s. Consumerism ruled the day, and might be, in Troy's estimation, Reagan's most enduring legacy (coupled with the kitschier patriotism). For example, when Coke introduced New Coke, the fury that erupted was "a disproportionate reaction to a minor, symbolic problem." Children of the 1960s no longer protested war, but reacted to "Reagan's gospel of progress and prosperity." (3) Trends such as the Cabbage Patch Kid phenomenon, the ever-increasing cult of celebrity, or the explosion of malls came to define the times. We see the effects of these trends today, with kids clamoring for the same plastic doodad and our continuing fascination with the intimate lives of the Hollywood elite.



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