The Age of Reagan: A History

Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz takes no prisoners. Recently he ranked George W. Bush among the absolute worst presidents and faulted Barack Obama?s media supporters as dupes of “instinct” politics; in the 1990s he mixed it up with right-wingers trying to bring down President Clinton. Equally at home commenting on hip trends in music, social criticism, race relations, and current politics, Wilentz combines the reflexes of a street fighter with the formidable apparatus of American scholarship. In his latest work, which follows on the success of The Rise of American Democracy, his well-received earlier effort to contextualize Jefferson and Jackson in pre-Civil War America, Wilentz attempts to place Ronald Reagan?s reinvigoration of the conservative movement and his presidency in the broad sweep of post-Watergate America.

Wilentz dutifully recapitulates the Ford and Carter presidencies but really picks up steam once his narrative puts Reagan in the White House. He observes that it was Reagan?s geniality, humor, and likability that gave conservatives an opportunity to tell Americans what they were for (a variation on the American dream of opportunity) rather than continue with their failed tradition of ranting about what they were against. Wilentz is at his best when he discusses the tensions inherent in Reagan?s message: on the one hand, Reagan invoked an American past of community and shared goals — a Hollywood history embodied in It?s a Wonderful Life and other films of that genre. On the other hand, Reaganism signified a new era of deregulated market capitalism, in which rampant individualism would put traditional local institutions and communities in jeopardy.

This is a book that brings clarity to events, always placing them in the context of Reagan?s reworking of conservative ideas. Wilentz is especially good in telling an undertold story of deregulation of markets, detailing the effects this has had on the economy and the American consumer. He provides a full account of the rampant corruption at the highest levels of the Reagan administration. He demonstrates that Reagan packed the federal judiciary with hard-line conservatives and explains what that has meant for constitutional law. He is highly insightful in recounting the evolution of Reagan?s thinking about the Cold War. Reagan began with a Manichean view and rhetoric about the “Evil Empire,” but gradually, and with some prodding from Nancy Reagan, he moved toward d?tente (though of course he never used that term). Wilentz points out that without Gorbachev?s willingness to engage in “New Thinking” on the Soviet side — and his success in purging about 100 Soviet military officers standing in his way — the Cold War would have continued.

The best chapter by far concerns the Iran-Contra affair. Wilentz provides a clear and concise account of the sale of arms to Iraq, underscoring the fact that from start to finish it was about hostages and not an overture to “moderates” in Teheran. Using excerpts from Reagan?s diaries, Wilentz shows how deeply involved Reagan was in authorizing the arms sales as an intelligence operation, and in supporting the Contras with “third-party” solicitations for funding. He explains why the Tower Commission never got to the bottom of Reagan?s involvement, and why the joint congressional committee that investigated the affair never attempted to impeach Reagan. Most chilling, he provides a roster of Reagan officials involved in Iran-Contra who subsequently assumed important positions in later Republican administrations. In Wilentz?s view, the outcomes of both Watergate and Iran-Contra do not demonstrate that “the system worked” but rather that conspirators attempting to subvert the Constitution almost got away with it.

While this work will appeal to readers who want to understand Reagan?s impact on America, the account of each event glosses over the details of governance. Carter?s opening to China is briefly narrated, but there is no discussion of the constitutional issues involved in unilateral presidential abrogation of a defense treaty with Taiwan, which was essential for the rapprochement with China but upsetting to Republican conservatives such as Barry Goldwater (who sued unsuccessfully in federal courts). The enactment of Reaganomics is dealt with as a redistribution of income upward (which it was) but not as an innovative new budget process (known to political scientists as “early reconciliation” because it inverted the order of legislation to pass a binding policy resolution first and then enact tax and spending bills thereafter). The development of a “Star Wars” missile system is expertly discussed in terms of its impact on relations with the Soviets, but there is no discussion of the constitutional fracas that ensued with the Senate over Reagan?s claim that he could unilaterally reinterpret a treaty negotiated by Nixon and consented to by the Senate (a claim that the Senate later rejected by passing a resolution stating that interpretation of a treaty must be based on its meaning at the time of Senate consent). The Iran-Contra chapter glosses over the controversy over whether the National Security Council was an “intelligence entity” covered by a law requiring the president or the director of central intelligence to inform Congress about intelligence operations. In fact, Reagan had signed Executive Order 10333, which specified that the NSC was “the highest intelligence entity” in the government, making his decision not to inform Congress unlawful. Similarly, when Wilentz discusses the CIA?s own covert operations in Nicaragua, he doesn?t point out that CIA director Casey had signed a memorandum promising to inform the Senate of any such operations in advance. Casey?s subsequent violation of the “Casey Accord” was the spark that led Goldwater and other conservative Republicans in the Senate to condemn the CIA?s conduct and insist that in the future the Senate be consulted in advance.

Throughout this book the language is pungent, the criticism is supported with evidence, and the judgments are sober: aid to the poor was cut but social spending increased; Reagan delivered next to nothing to the religious right except speeches; Reagan revived the sputtering economy but the boom was overstated; Reagan cut taxes but overall the tax burden did not decrease; Reagan was not one of the most popular presidents and lagged significantly behind FDR, Kennedy, and Eisenhower; Reagan was instrumental — after many missteps — in paving the way for improved relations with the Soviets. Throughout, Wilentz provides Reagan one-liners and jokes and discusses some of the loopier aspects of the man (such as the president?s constant reference, when discussing nuclear weapons, to the possibility that, if “aliens” came to Earth from another planet, their arrival would unite earthlings in their common humanity). Although as a public intellectual Wilentz is a highly partisan Democrat, with this panoramic sweep of American history he has made good on his promise to the reader to “open up new lines of inquiry and debate.”