The Age of Reagan
Sean Wilentz, who teaches American history at Princeton University, has a well-deserved reputation as both an outstanding scholar and a strong partisan for the Democratic Party in contemporary American politics. His was a leading voice, for example, against the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. Because of Wilentz’s involvement in contemporary politics, this new study, The Age of Reagan, on the impact of Ronald Reagan on recent national politics will surprise Wilentz’s critics and disconcert some Democrats. In this lengthy but lively treatment of the last four decades of public affairs, Wilentz takes Reagan seriously and examines his effect on the political scene with a shrewd sense of the president’s genuine importance. From that interpretive point of view, Wilentz then proceeds to analyze Reagan’s impact on subsequent presidents and American politics in general.
Wilentz’s scholarly field has been the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, about which he has published important books about Jacksonian democracy and for which he has received prizes for his substantial accomplishments. Wilentz brings his strong capacity to do extensive research in primary sources and to write compelling prose to his study of Reagan and his times. His in-depth explorations in the archival collections of the Gerald R. Ford Library and the Jimmy Carter Library are among the genuine strengths of this study. Wilentz offers a timely reminder that extensive research in primary sources is still one of the hallmarks of excellence in an historian.
Readers will find an abundance of fresh information about the major players in the time period covered by Wilentz’s book. He has useful things to say about the deeper meaning of the Iran-Contra episode of Reagan’s second term. Few writers have provided more intelligent treatments of Clinton’s trials at the hands of the president’s political enemies during the 1990’s. Throughout, Wilentz has an eye for the appropriate quotation to illustrate his arguments and to illuminate the character of the public figures that he discusses. Wilentz has mastered the facts of innumerable now-forgotten controversies, and he sets the record straight on such questions as The New York Times and its questionable role in promoting the bogus Whitewater flap of the Clinton era.
The narrative begins with the resignation of Richard Nixon in August, 1974, and the launch of the administration of Gerald R. Ford, and Wilentz provides an insightful analysis of Ford’s brief tenure in the White House. He emphasizes the importance of such figures as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney to the decision making of the president in the run-up to the 1976 presidential election. The displeasure with Congress that Rumsfeld and Cheney experienced at that time influenced their disdain for Congress during the administration of George W. Bush. Ford emerges as an underrated president who suffered from the legacy of Nixon and his inability to overcome the negative public reaction to his pardon of the former president in September, 1974.
The Carter administration comes in for a tart appraisal from Wilentz. The president’s political ineptitude in office and the contradiction between his lofty campaign rhetoric and his maladroit governing style are developed in rich detail. Carter overmanaged the details of his presidency and failed to connect with the public as economic conditions worsened. This chapter recaptures the difficulties of the Carter years and the consequent decay of the Democratic Party as a governing coalition.
The key to the book, however, is the enigmatic personality and enduring political appeal of Reagan. Wilentz describes how Reagan’s star rose in California politics during the mid-1960’s and why the governor became the darling of Republican conservatives in the 1970’s. Reagan had a winning style that avoided the stridency of Barry Goldwater and the moral squalor of Nixon. With his team of savvy media advisers, Reagan used the techniques of Hollywood stardom to package conservatism in a way that addressed the fears of Americans in the turbulence of the post-Watergate era. Wilentz is especially good on Reagan’s ability to adapt to changing political circumstances, even when his tactical shifts conflicted with his philosophical creed. In California and in Washington, the tax-cutting Reagan proved able to raise revenues when it was politically necessary.
Reagan’s inscrutable character has defied the...
(The entire section is 1847 words.)