Transforming America

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Robert M. Collins. Transforming America: Politics and Culture in the Reagan Years. New York: Columbia University Press. 2007. 310p. $32.00. Hardcover. ISBN: 9780231124003.


Transforming America: Politics and Culture in the Reagan Years by Robert M. Collins provides not only a political and economic history of Ronald Reagan’s presidency but also delves into the social and cultural history of the times as well. Following his death in July 2004, “Much of the commentary about Reagan focused warmly on his personality – his irrepressible and infectious optimism, his unfailing decency, and his sense of humor” (1) He was remembered as a heroic leader and a world figure, but also as the president who began “the right-wing counter-revolution that led to the present psychotic and criminal Bush administration” (2-3). To analyze the Reagan years, Collins begins with three basic questions: “Where in this welter of praise and denunciation lies the truth? Who was Ronald Reagan; what did he do to, and for his country? And what was happening in the rest of American life in the 1980s, in American culture and society, and in the U.S. economy, while he did?” (3).

Collins begins by presenting an overview of the 1970s by focusing on the defining events of the decade such as Watergate, Vietnam, the oil embargo and Teheran. The Watergate scandal of 1972 led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. In 1973, along with Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Nixon negotiated what “they labeled, all too prematurely, a peace with honor” in Vietnam (11). In 1973-1974, OPEC initiated an oil embargo which led to a “massive increase in the cost of energy…[and] triggered the recession of 1974-1975” (7-8). In 1979, the deposed and exiled, Shah of Iran was reluctantly granted a visa by President Carter, who feared retaliation, to enter the U.S. to receive treatment for cancer. Carter’s fear became reality when “outraged Islamic radicals…seiz[ed] the staff and Marine Corps guard of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran” (25). The hostages were not released until after Reagan took the oath of office on January 20, 1981.

Collins chronicles Reagan’s life from his early years in small town America, to radio and movies in Hollywood, service during World War II, marriage, divorce and second marriage, and his political career. He delineates two character traits which developed during his childhood and remained significant throughout his life. “The first was an emotional aloofness that would plague Reagan in his personal relationships” and the second, he “grew to become an exceedingly optimistic human being; indeed, that optimism became his signature trait” (31). This optimism shone forth in many of his speeches. In his first inaugural address he stated, “The nation’s problems…required ‘our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe…we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.’ ‘And after all…why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans’.” (50).

While some critics viewed him as inept utilizing statements such as, “the desert between Ronald Reagan’s ears” and references to his mind as “such barren terrain” others discussed his “considerable intelligence” (50-51). According to Collins, “the available evidence indicates that Reagan was an intelligent and generally knowledgeable political leader who thought seriously about the issues of his day…he was intelligent, disciplined and hard working” (51).

Collins provides a wealth of information regarding the economic issues during Reagan’s administration, particularly what came to be known as “Reaganomics”. Collins stated, “President Ronald Reagan’s most profound impact on public policy came in the realm of political economy” (59). Reaganomics included, “across-the-board tax cuts of at least three years duration in conjunction with the indexation of federal income brackets, reduction in the rate of increase in federal spending, the balancing of the federal budget, vigorous deregulation, and a consistent and stringent monetary policy to deal with inflation” (67-68).

Collins also discussed the social and cultural history of the 1980s and beyond, including the creation of the personal computer, AIDS, MTV, and various social problems. In 1992, Patrick Buchanan spoke of a cultural war involving issues including “abortion on demand, homosexual rights, and radical feminism” (171). Some of these issues from the cultural war of the 1980s continue to be points of contention today such as the ongoing issue of abortion rights.


Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Transforming America by Robert Collins is similar to The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan by John Ehrman with some key differences. Both authors begin by providing an overview of Reagan’s life from small town America to his years as governor of California and the development of his political beliefs. They also provide an overview of the watershed events of the 1970s which ultimately led to a political shift and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

While there are similarities, there are also key differences both in content and style. Collins presents a more extensive social and cultural history of the American people which includes pop culture, technology, social issues and foreign affairs in contrast to Erhman’s focus on American politics and economics. Another area of difference is found in their writing styles, Collins presents an interpretive narrative that increases the readability of his book in contrast to the more traditional narrative exhibited in Ehrman’s book.

Although, Collins and Ehrman each approached the historical significance of the Reagan administration from different perspectives with a different agenda and thesis, they ultimately came to the same conclusion, Ronald Reagan was an intelligent and effective leader who endeared himself to the American public.--Blclark 12:26, 18 November 2008 (UTC)

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