Friday, October 30, 2009
That Eighties Show
Two new books on the Reagan era suggest a lively range of opinion
The following omnibus review was published this week on the History New's Network's books page.
Twenty years after he left office, five years after his death, and a year after what is widely regarded as a watershed election that rejected some of it core tenets, the life and times of Ronald Reagan are poised on the cusp of a transition from memory to history. As with Andrew Jackson, with whom he had much in common, one can speak of an "Age of Reagan" that extended beyond his presidency. As with Jackson too, much perception of Reagan among intellectual elites was strongly negative when in power. Both were viewed as willful, but unintelligent, executives who delegated political operations to fierce partisans. Those partisans in turn reputedly manufactured a faux populism embraced by a gullible public even as they set the nation on a potentially ruinous course.
But for Reagan, like Jackson, a revisionist school has emerged. Two new books illustrate the ongoing range of opinion about Reagan -- and the new consensus, recently articulated by journalist Richard Reeves (Ronald Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, 2005) and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz (The Age of Reagan, 2008) that this was a man to be reckoned with as a statesman and policy maker no less than in the realm of masterful communication.
In a sense, Gil Troy, who writes regularly for the History News Network, seems ill-suited to write a book with the title "The Reagan Revolution." Troy has carved out a space for himself as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in books like Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. And in fact, the argument of his new book belies its title: according to Troy, there was no Reagan revolution. This is not to say Reagan was an inconsequential president: Troy portrays him as a man who changed the nation's political climate even if he never changed its topography. And one can elaborate on this sentence with a half-dozen like it: Reagan cut taxes, though he never quite managed to rein in spending. He was perceived as hostile to Civil Rights, even as he maintained affirmative action and the nation underwent a demographic transformation. He rattled a saber with the Soviets yet ushered in a post-Cold War world. And so on.
Troy's mastery of his material and ability to condense it elegantly reflect both deep immersion in his subject and an ability to see forest through trees. But its underlying logic engenders a little restlessness. Reagan succeeded because he was at heart a centrist. As Troy makes clear in Leading from the Center, so was FDR. And Abraham Lincoln. And George Washington. One begins to suspect that for Troy, a successful, non-moderate Reagan would be a contradiction in terms. Yet he was more of an ideologue than any of these leaders. (One again thinks of Andrew Jackson and suspects Troy would tame him as well.)
The Reagan Revolution is a new entry in Oxford University Press's marvelous "Very Short Introduction" series, now over 200 (pocket-sized) volumes strong. Like other books in the series, it does not try to provide an unbroken narrative line. Instead, Troy segments its 130 pages into eight chapters, each of which are titled with questions -- "Was Reagan a Dummy?"; "Did the Democrats Fiddle as the Reaganauts conquered Washington?"; "Did the Reagan Revolution Succeed or Fail?" -- and sequenced into an overlapping, but loosely chronological, discussion. This intelligent strategy makes the book very useful for the casual reader as well as highly flexible for classroom use. It's hard to imagine another book serving such a function any better than this.
As it happens, Gil Troy, who teaches at McGill University, is also the editor, along with Vincent J. Cannato of UMass Boston, of Living in the Eighties, an anthology in another Oxford University Press series, "Viewpoints on American Culture." As one might expect, this is a collection notable for the quality of its scholarship and sturdiness of its prose. But the hallmark of the anthology, perhaps not surprisingly, is balance, not only in terms of opinion, but also generations and even professions. On the Right, former Attorney General Edwin Meese makes a cogent brief for Reagan's presidency as an almost unalloyed triumph, while Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution decisively credits Reagan for ending the Cold War. On the Left, heavyweight historians Sara Evans and Bruce Shulman decry the evisceration of feminism and the decline of public space respectively.
In terms of actually advancing the historiography of the Reagan era, the most important essays are a pair of pieces by Joseph Crespino and Kim Phillips-Fein, both of whom gave papers in a notably lively session at the Organization of American Historians Conference in Seattle earlier this year. In that session and these pieces, Crespino and Phillips-Fein and their generational cohort seek to move beyond the argument, crystallized most succinctly in Thomas and Mary Edsall's 1992 book Chain Reaction, that converging resentments of race, rights and taxes explain the success of the neoconservative movement. Crespino suggests the neocon synthesis in the South is much deeper and broader than such a formulation suggests; Phillips-Fein implicitly challenges Troy (who here zeroes in on Reagan's first hundred days to suggest they were the high-water mark of his "revolution") in emphasizing the scope and depth of Reagan's long-term success in shifting the nation's political discourse.
Perhaps the most satisfying pieces in the collection, however, are those that function as tightly focused case studies. Editor Cannato does a nice job in looking at New York mayoral politics and the ambiguous career of Ed Koch. Mark Brilliant of the University of California at Berkeley uses his own institution as a point of departure for tracing subtle shifts in the evolution of multiculturalism in academic life. Music executive and record producer Steve Greenberg's precise yet resonant analysis of racial -- and racist -- currents in the transition from the seventies to the eighties in popular music is rock criticism of the highest order. David Greenberg performs comparable service in tracing currents within liberalism in the eighties, as does Lauren Winner in her analysis of evangelical religion in the years between the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The field of what might be termed "Reagan Studies" is already well established, and there are no doubt graduate students across the country right now struggling to master a large and growing body of work. But these two works together comprise a remarkable sampler of a discourse in motion. It's morning in RR scholarship.