Restless Giant

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James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 448 p. $35. ISBN 0-19-512216-X


In Restless Giant, James Patterson writes a comprehensive history of the period between the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 to the election of George Bush in 2000. The book is wide-ranging, covering political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of life in America. The book is organized chronologically, describing events in each presidential administration.

Patterson begins with a description of the “troubled 70s,” a period of racial and social turmoil. Patterson says, “They were grim, tasteless years that are best put out of mind.” (p. 13) He finds that during this period racial issues remained the nation’s number one problem. Supreme Court rulings gave teeth to civil rights laws; school desegregation advanced; affirmative action plans were put in place; and black Americans advanced economically, politically, and socially. However, Patterson finds that a gap remained “between the reality of black-white relations and of the higher expectations that liberals and many black people had developed in the 1960s.” He finds that “laws did not greatly promote the still elusive, cardinal goal of African Americans: social and economic equality.” (p. 18)

In addition to racial turmoil, Patterson notes other disturbing social trends in the 70s, including a decline in educational quality, urban problems fueled by the flight to the suburbs, an upsurge in drug abuse, rising crime rates, and a decline in sexual morality. Patterson also cites the escalating divorce rate, the increase in out-of-wedlock births, and the rise of the abortion rights movement as signs of the social upheaval taking place in this period. There was mounting agitation for women’s rights, as large numbers of women began entering the workforce and fought against sex discrimination. Patterson says, “Still, there was no doubting the magnitude of the seismic shift in America’s work and gender relationships.” (p. 57)

Patterson also describes economic problems of the period, beginning with the stagflation induced by the structural changes in the American economy, as it moved from a manufacturing base to a post-industrial society more dependent on services. Economic competition from abroad compounded the problems, producing labor unrest as traditional union jobs disappeared. The Vietnam War and increases in the price of oil sparked an inflationary spiral in the 70s that generated more unrest. Despite the problems Patterson believes that most people fared better in the 70s, saying, “The years of the late 70s were hardly a great Age of Decline.” (p. 74)

Upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Gerald Ford became President and promptly guaranteed his short time in office by pardoning Nixon. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Act, curbing presidential authority to involve the nation in war, and refused to fund any further aid to South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese took Saigon in April 1975, as the last Americans remaining there fled from the Embassy rooftop in helicopters. Communists also took control in Laos and Cambodia, embarking on the slaughter of millions. It was an ignominious end to two decades of American efforts to prevent a communist takeover of the region. Patterson finds that thereafter “conflict over the lessons to be learned from the war in Vietnam persisted as a potent force in American life.” (p. 100) He also states his belief that the efforts were doomed to failure from the start. He says, “It is highly doubtful that even massive amounts of United States aid would have saved the pro-American governments of Southeast Asia,’” since these “were riddled with corruption and had little popular following.” (pp. 100-01) In these views he is in agreement with both John Gladdis and David Halberstam.

Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976. He proved particularly inept at addressing the nation’s problems, which he blamed on “malaise.” His call for the American people to sacrifice in the face of high energy prices fell flat. In international affairs he did no better. He pardoned draft evaders, canceled the B-1 bomber and the neutron bomb, established relations with Communist China, and ceded the Panama Canal to Panama. Each of these actions infuriated a different constituency. His one major achievement was the peace accord he brokered between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1978. The Soviet deployment of mid-range nuclear missiles threatening Western Europe in 1977 and the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 doomed his efforts to promote better relations with the Soviet Union. In November 1979 66 Americans were taken hostage from the US Embassy in Iran, provoking the prolonged “Hostage Crisis” that dogged his presidency to the end.

Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980. Patterson says, “It was Reagan’s good fortune to ride on a large new wave that swelled in the late 1970s . . . : political conservatism.” (p. 130) Patterson finds that several previously unconnected groups, including white blue-collar workers, southern whites opposed to civil rights, Republicans opposed to big government, socially conservative Catholics, and evangelical Protestants came together in a crusade for a range of causes. He says, “This conservative coalition, adeptly exploited by Reagan, dramatically altered the landscape of politics in the United States.” (p. 131) Patterson finds that most conservatives in the 1970s targeted social and cultural evils, such as abortion, gay rights, and pornography, and many of them were religiously motivated. Patterson states, “By 1980, members of the Religious Right were well on their way to forming what was soon to become the strongest grass-roots, community-based movement of late twentieth-century American life.” (p. 135)

Patterson is generally complimentary toward Reagan, finding his pragmatism and “stubborn certitude” effective in attracting his considerable political popularity. Patterson finds that critics were correct in assailing Reagan as a hard-line conservative but incorrect in deeming him a mental lightweight. He says, “Opposing affirmative action, choice, and big government, he stood stubbornly and proudly on the right wing of his party. Those who thought he was an airhead, however, underestimated him.” (p. 146) Reagan had simple goals, including “winning the Cold War, shoring up traditional values, embracing the American Dream of upward social mobility” that resonated with voters. (p. 153) Reagan fostered supply-side economics, designed to spur economic growth by encouraging greater entrepreneurial activity through lower taxes. However, combining tax cuts with increased military spending produced large budget deficits, which discredited “Reaganomics.” As Patterson says, “the soundness of supply-side ideas remained hotly debated,” (p. 166) but “the number of jobs grew by some 200,000 a month – or by more than 18 million overall – between 1981 and 1989.” (p. 169) Patterson finds that despite criticism from liberals Reagan was an effective president, saying, ”In fact, Reagan had proved to be a consequential president, more so perhaps than any chief executive since FDR.” (p. 191) While the Iran-Contra scandal threatened the Reagan presidency, his success in negotiating arms reductions with the Soviets, strengthening the military, and helping to bring about an end to the Cold War assured his place in history.

George H. W. Bush was elected president in 1988. His domestic agenda lacked ambition. His compromise on a budget deal to reduce deficits by raising taxes enraged many Republican supporters and did not avert a damaging recession in 1990-1991 that hurt his reelection prospects. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Bush continued the push for arms reductions with Russia. He launched Operation Just Cause to restore order in Panama and remove President Noriega from power. In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Bush formed an international coalition that defeated Iraqi forces quickly. Bush lost the election of 1992 to Bill Clinton, primarily because of the candidacy of Ross Perot who drew 19.7 million votes away from the Republican ticket.

Under Clinton the culture wars of the 80s continued over abortion, gay rights, graphic art and movies, and educational materials. As the influence of the Religious Right declined somewhat, Patterson finds that liberals were winning many of the social and cultural wars. (p. 269) Racial disparities remained a source of tension. Black Americans were imprisoned at an increasing rate. Patterson says, “In 2003, African Americans, who were 12.3 percent of the population, were 46 percent of all prisoners in the United States.” (p. 274) Clinton sought to further the liberal trends by removing federal strictures on abortion counseling and seeking to allow gays to serve openly in the military. His attempt to address the health insurance problem with a comprehensive government-run program ended in defeat. He did make substantial progress in eliminating government deficits and supported free trade with the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In foreign affairs Clinton faced numerous problems as the bipolar world of the Cold War era continued disintegrating into civil wars and separatist movements in many areas. Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia were torn apart by warring elements. Clinton withdrew US forces from Somalia after a losing battle but did lead a successful UN effort to restore order in the former Yugoslavia. Patterson finds that Clinton was frustrated by foreign problems because there were “no obvious answers – only hard choices.” (p. 341) Clinton’s second term was marred by scandals, such as the Monica Lewinsky affair and the Whitewater investment deal. He was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998 but narrowly acquitted by the Senate.

George W. Bush ran for the presidency in 2000 on a platform of tax cuts and narrowly defeated Al Gore in an election that hinged on results in the state of Florida that were ruled on by the Supreme Court. Once again a third party candidate substantially affected the election. Ralph Nader won almost 3 million votes, which probably would have otherwise gone to Gore and made him the winner.


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Patterson describes Ronald Reagan as the consummate optimist who declared "Morning again in America" and scoffed at Jimmy Carter's view that America was declining in an age of limits. Reagan pronounced that the United States was ""a city upon a hill" whose democratic institutions were destined to spread about the world." (p. 152)Contrary to popular portrayals, Patterson finds Reagan to be flexible and pragmatic in his approach to problems rather than strictly conservative. Patterson says, "Reagan, moreover, was not so doctrinaire a conservative as liberals made out." He opposed liberal programs, especially entitlements, but he recognized that "major New Deal-Great Society social programs . . . were here to stay." (p. 163)

Reagan's approach to the financial problems of Social Security showed his pragmatism. He appointed a bipartisan commission, which recommended an increase in payroll taxes and the retirement age. While these steps did not solve the long-range problems of the program, they did address its short-term needs and assured its viability for another 25-30 years. As Patterson says, "But by accepting bipartisan changes in Social Security, Reagan had avoided political catastrophe, and he made no further efforts to trim the largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare." (p. 165)

Patterson describes Reagan's role in ending the Cold War as pivotal. Reagan countered the placement of intermediate range missiles threatening Western Europe by placing similar missiles in Europe. He expanded the miltary capabilities of the US and inaugurated the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system. SDI, known as Star Wars,was derided as a high tech fantasy, but it put the Soviet Union on notice that it would have to commit major resources to match the American defense buildup. Reagan dealt forcefully with Gorbachev and achieved a major breakthrough in 1987 when they agreed to the INF treaty eliminating nuclear missiles in Europe. (p. 215)

Patterson observes that historians have argued over Reagan's role in ending the Cold War with many believing that he was only one of a number of contributing factors. But Patterson finds that Reagan deserves much credit, saying "From the beginning of his presidency, he had rejected the notion that the Cold War must be permanent or that Communism would long remain a force in world politics." (p. 218) Patterson believes that Reagan's controversial hardline opposition to Communism gave him the political credibility to negotiate arms reductions with the Soviet Union. Reagan's staunch anticommunist beliefs were decried by liberals, but Patterson finds, "In holding such beliefs, he ignored the opinions of virtually all experts, including CIA officials, most of whom had failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union." (p. 216) John Gaddis in The Cold War expressed similar views of the effectiveness of Reagan's policies in ending the Cold War.

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