The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

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The Age of Reagan

Sean Wilentz. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. pp 564. ISBN: 97800060744809

Summary

The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz argues that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House were the defining years of period 1974-2008. He argues that everything before Reagan’s election was a lead up and everything after was either a consequence or reaction. Interestingly enough, Wilentz does not credit Reagan with actually accomplishing much. His chapters on the Reagan administration serve more to debunk the myth that Reagan was somehow a wildly successful president. It was actually Reagan’s failures, appointments, and disregard for the law that impacted coming generations of politicians.

Wilentz opens his book with a comparison between the New Deal and the Age of Reagan. He writes, “Just as the period of American history from 1933 to the late 1960s—between the rise of the New Deal and the fall of Lyndon B. Johnson Great Society—was chiefly one of liberal reform, so the past thirty-five years have been an era of conservatism.”(1) Despite “brief” periods of Democratic rule in the late 1970s and 1990s, the politics of this period was dominated by opposition to the New Deal legacy. As he later points out, Reagan was only able to chip away at the New Deal.

According to Wilentz, Gerald Ford has not been given enough credit by historians. Ford “never wanted to be president.”(28) His administration suffered from “competing ideologies and political agendas” and reflected the changes within the Republican Party. Ford cut his teeth in the back rooms of Congress and had learned to make bargains and compromise. After Watergate he felt that the country needed unity. The country was, however, too polarized for compromise. Liberals were outraged with the pardon of Nixon (even though some later admitted that it had to be done). Conservatives were likewise disgusted when Ford appointed moderate Nelson Rockefeller Vice President. Though Ford had entered the White House with a 70% approval rating by the end of his first year in office he was almost as unpopular as Nixon. Racial tensions mounted over the issue of forced busing. Again seeking harmony, Ford sought to find a middle ground. The result was that he ended up “helping to push many ex-Democrats as well as longtime conservative Republicans into the political camp of the pro-Reagan right.”(47) Saddled with a sinking economy and a hostile Congress, Ford was unable to do much.

By 1976 the Democrats could taste the White House. With control of both Houses and an unpopular president in the White House, liberals believed that the nightmare of a Republican in the White House was soon over. Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 masked a seriously divided Democratic Party. His lack of experience with Washington-style politics helped him win the election, but cost him dearly once he occupied the White House. He simply did not know how to get things done. The economy was clearly Carter’s biggest problem. The country was experiencing stagflation which baffled economists. Instead of taking bold action, Carter “revived an older progressive sprit and then fell back on familiar formulations about fiscal responsibility and the gospel of frugality—while treating the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill as benighted obstructionists.”(83) While economic problems worsened, social issues continued to divide the country. Liberal Democrats who supported affirmative action, women who pushed for the ERA, and numerous other interest groups demanded action. Meanwhile, the middle class was more worried about jobs and taxes. Carter’s presidency was shaping up to be another disaster.

On the Right, conservatives were mobilizing. Building on the grassroots operation of Barry Goldwater, conservative interest groups had been gaining in strength for years. Much of the movement’s success can be traced to the alliance between evangelicals with racist (or at least anti-affirmative action) whites. “The new right also brilliantly turned the tables rhetorically and intellectually on liberals and Democrats”(91) by arguing that their ideas were new and promised hope. Events abroad did not help the President either. The Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostages was evidence enough for many Americans that Carter could not handle himself in such a dangerous world. Faced with a challenge from Edward Kennedy in the 1980 primaries, Carter’s was badly weakened by the time he faced Ronald Reagan in the general election.

Reagan’s Presidency, according to Wilentz, was not as successful as some conservatives like to remember. Reagan had the good fortune of leading a unified party while the Democrats were falling apart. Nonetheless, Reagan was a failure in almost every he set out to accomplish. Domestically, Reagan was unable to reduce the size of the Federal Government or undo the legacies of the New Deal. When it came to social issues such as “ending federal protection of abortion, restoring prayer to public schools, reversing the trend toward toleration of homosexuality—the Reagan administration delivered nothing at all besides speeches.”(274) His record on civil rights was dismal. Reagan was not personally racist but he had no problem appearing so in order to win votes. When it came to taxes, “any suggestion that Reagan significantly lightened the nation’s overall tax load is bogus.”(275) On top of his failures, Reagan oversaw disturbing violations of the law and constitution. His deregulation policies led to the “savings and loan scandal, the politicization and plunder of the Environmental Protection Agency” and gross violations of the law. Despite aide’s “paper-shredding parties” and attempts to cover-up what the President knew, Reagan was clearly aware of the Iran-contra scandal. Wilentz argues that too much focus has been on the contra side of the scandal and that the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for hostages, which was illegal and disturbing in its own right, should have led to impeachment hearings.

Reagan certainly deserves some credit for the easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. But it was really Gorbachev who did the most work. Were it not for his accession to power, Reagan would have been left with a dismal record on foreign policy. It was in Gorbachev's best interest to thaw the Cold War because he wanted to divert money currently going to defense spending to domestic reform. Wilentz points out that even with Gorbachev’s overtures, Reagan almost managed to destroy any hope of reform when he refused to budge on his pet SDI project.

Reagan’s policies effectively destroyed any chance his successor, George H. W. Bush, had of being successful. Reaganomics produced record deficits that forced Bush to raise taxes. Even though most of the heavy-hitting Democrats chose not to run in 1992, Bush was doomed to be a one-term president. The Republican revolution in 1994 stemmed directly from Reagan’s policies. Newt Gingrich built upon Reagan’s success by exploiting social issues and employing some of the dirty campaign tactics that were seen in the 1988 presidential election. These same dirty techniques and exploitation of social divisions catapulted George W. Bush to the White House in 2000. He brought along many former Reagan staffers including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfiwitz. In office he followed Reagan’s footsteps with his disregard for the will of Congress and the Constitution. It was, in many ways, Reaganism perfected.

Commentary

David Houpt, Fall 2008

The Age of Reagan is a nice summary of the past 35 years. Wilentz touches on a number of themes that have been addressed in the class. The New Deal and its legacies, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the Great Society are all touched upon. It also does a good job at weaving in foreign policy with domestic events. Wilentz’s emphasis is on the domestic policies but with issues such as the crash of the Soviet Union or Hostage situation in Iran he shows how a president’s ability to accomplish things at home can sometimes hinge on foreign policy decisions.

The book also dove-tails nicely with Nixonland and is written in a similar style. There is very little discussion of the major figures’ childhood or attempts to understand why individuals made the decisions that they did. Politics and political ideology are the focus. However, the books differ when it comes to the Presidency of George W. Bush. Nixonland suggests that many of the campaign techniques and styles of governing used in the Bush 42 White House were taken directly from Nixon’s play-book. Sean Wilentz points out that the Reagan White House was just as full of criminals and that many of Bush’s top advisors and aides served Reagan. Wilentz argues that Reagan was not really influenced by Nixon because they were ideologically different and that Reagan would not follow Nixon’s footsteps because Nixon had been caught.

I strongly disagree with this argument. While the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations all flaunted the law in a different way, I believe that there is a relationship between the three. Nixon did get caught but it was because he made mistakes. Had he burned the White House tapes his role would have never been proved. Reagan’s people also got caught. Iran-contra was exposed and almost cost the administration its legacy. Reagan may have been more ideologically conservative than Nixon but that does not mean he was not more than happy to break the law when it suited his needs. Each President built on the previous one. Where mistakes were made, attempts were made to fix them. This is exactly why there were “paper shredding parties” during the breaking of the Iran-contra scandal. The Reagan administration was not about to make the same mistake Nixon did and leave incriminating evidence. It remains to be seen exactly how many scandals Bush will have presided over but I have no doubt he and his staff have learned from previous presidents.

The book’s greatest weakness is that it goes too far it criticizing Reagan. There are certainly many areas where Reagan’s success has been blown out of proportion but that does not mean he did nothing. The most Wilentz was willing to give Reagan was that he got the economy moving (which he later said would have happened regardless). There is significant evidence that Reagan was not the leader some people like to remember him but he did leave office with a 70% approval rating. He did effectively end the Cold War. Blaming George H. W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton is also unfair. Certainly the economy hurt Bush but he could have overcome that. Wilentz is right that Reagan did not dramatically change the course of history. In the same vein, not everything later presidents did had something to do with Ronald Reagan. In short, I disagree that everything in the last 8 years can be blamed on Reagan.

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