The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

by Sean Wilentz


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The past thirty-five years have marked an era of conservatism. Although briefly interrupted in the late 1970s and temporarily reversed in the 1990s, a powerful surge from the right dominated American politics and government from 1974 to 2008. In The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz, one of our nation's leading historians, accounts for how a conservative movement once deemed marginal managed to seize power and hold it, and describes the momentous consequences that followed.

Vivid, authoritative, and illuminating from start to finish, The Age of Reagan is a groundbreaking chronicle of America's political history since the fall of Nixon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060744816
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/05/2009
Series: American History Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 591,188
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sean Wilentz is the author of The Rise of American Democracy, a Bancroft Prize winner.

Reader of over 400 audiobooks, Dick Hill has won three coveted Audie awards and been nominated numerous times. He is also the recipient of several AudioFile Earphones Awards. AudioFile includes Dick on their prestigious list of "Golden Voices."

Read an Excerpt

The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008
By Sean Wilentz
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Sean Wilentz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060744809

Chapter One

Memories of the Ford Administration

John Updike's satirical novel Memories of the Ford Administration, which was published in 1992, concerns a stumblebum, would-be promiscuous historian named Alfred Clayton. While struggling to finish a sympathetic biography of James Buchanan—one of the few presidents in all of American history more vilified than Nixon—Clayton agrees to write, as a distraction, a chronicle of his impressions and memories of Gerald Ford's presidency. Clayton's recollections revolve around the Boston Red Sox and sex—delightful sex, desperate sex, and default sex. "What had been unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory," he writes. But what about Gerald Ford? The politics of the mid-1970s had barely seemed to intrude on Clayton's consciousness. "For that matter, was there ever a Ford Administration?" he asks. "Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty."

Post-Watergate America lingers in Americans' memories as a jumble of bad clothing fads, shag haircuts, an embarrassingly puerile popular culture, and political stasis. The economy was in deep trouble. Much of what remained of the idealistic social movements of the 1960s descended into the mad violence of grouplets such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, before burning out altogether. Thefrenzied pursuit of consumerist pleasures—through electronic gadgets, mail-order rendezvous, and other life-enhancers—gave rise to what the journalist Tom Wolfe called "the Me Decade" and the historian Christopher Lasch judged more severely as a culture of narcissism. The poetic songwriter Bob Dylan, who had survived the 1960s and somehow kept his head, no longer heard freedom blowing in the wind; he heard something mindless and sinister:

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Dylan could have been berating a lover, the entire country, or both.

Yet there were also fresh breezes, or what seemed to be. In 1975, a dropout from Harvard named Bill Gates joined up with a friend, Paul Allen, to found a company they originally called "Micro-soft," with the utopian motto, "A computer on every desk and in every home." The feminist movement, the strongest outgrowth of the activism of the 1960s, was on the march following the Supreme Court's decision in 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, to strike down state laws that criminalized abortion. (A year earlier, Congress had sent an Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban civil inequality based on sex, to the states; and by 1977, thirty-five states had approved the amendment, leaving only three more to make it the law of the land.) Out of the morass of popular culture emerged, in 1976–1977, a televised series called Roots, on the ordeals and triumphs of one supposedly representative black family, beginning with the enslavement of an African, Kunta Kinte, in the eighteenth century. Based on a wildly successful book by the black writer Alex Haley, Roots attracted 130 million viewers to its final episode and appeared to be a milestone, marking how Americans had begun laying aside the racial stereotypes and hatreds that had disfigured their history. (Only later did charges surface that Haley had fabricated portions of the book that were purportedly true.)

New departures were also stirring elsewhere on the fragmented cultural and political scene. The feminists' success alarmed cadres of conservatives, including Goldwater's campaigner Phyllis Schlafly, who seized the opportunity to drum up a movement that would help revive the right and rally it around cultural issues. In 1973, another conservative activist, Paul Weyrich, established a new think tank, the Heritage Foundation. With Heritage at its disposal, Weyrich hoped that the political right would at last win the battle over ideas and policy planning long ceded to the liberals.

Even more prominent, although little understood at the time, were the struggles in Washington over how to govern after Richard Nixon's downfall. The press corps paid the most attention to liberal congressional Democrats who, emboldened by sweeping victories in the elections of 1974, moved to retrieve the power they said Nixon had usurped, especially over foreign policy. The White House did its best to fend off these efforts, while it battled Congress over pressing economic issues. But the Ford administration, which very much existed, was also riven from within—and haunted by Nixon's political ghost. Ford himself was determined to govern from the ideological center: he knew this would dismay conservatives and, in some instances, leave them "sputtering." Inside the White House, though, a faction consisting of former Nixon hands faced off against more moderate elements, pushed the administration to the right, and tried to create a mainstream conservative alternative to the Goldwater hard-liners, now led by Ronald Reagan. While they counseled a fight to the finish with Congress over economic issues, conservatives in the White House undermined the stature and power of the most celebrated holdover from the Nixon era, Secretary of State Kissinger, whose so-called realist approaches to domestic and world affairs they considered tired, timid, and unprincipled. Disgruntled traditional "cold war Democrats," who would soon be known as neoconservatives, also attacked Kissinger's policies. Reagan and the Republican right, meanwhile, regarded Ford's White House with dismay and, finally, with disgust.

Overshadowed by Watergate while facing new and bewildering problems at home and abroad, the Ford administration was torn by competing ideologies and political agendas. Its tribulations would leave a lasting mark on the next thirty years of American history.

A modest and easily underestimated man, Gerald Ford had gained the presidency not because of any executive expertise but because of his skills as a congressional insider in the backslapping, hard-driving style that once dominated Washington politics. His calm demeanor and reputation for integrity initially won him great credit from the Washington press corps as exactly the kind of leader the country needed after Watergate. Before long, though, commentators of differing persuasions began questioning whether he was up to the job.


Excerpted from The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz Copyright © 2008 by Sean Wilentz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Introduction 1

Prologue: July 4, 1976 14

1 Memories of the Ford Administration 26

2 Détente and Its Discontents 48

3 Jimmy Carter and the Agonies of Anti-Politics 73

4 Human Rights and Democratic Collapse 99

5 New Morning 127

6 Confronting the Evil Empire 151

7 "Call It Mysticism If You Will" 176

8 "We Have an Undercover Thing": The Iran-Contra Affair 209

9 "Another Time, Another Era" 245

10 Reaganism and Realism 288

11 The Politics of Clintonism 323

12 Clinton's Comeback 355

13 Animosities and Interest: The Impeachment of Clinton 382

14 Irreparable Harm: The Election of 2000 408

Epilogue: October 13, 2001 432

Acknowledgments 459

Notes 461

Selected Sources and Readings 515

Index 545

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"Eloquent and compelling.... [A] superb account." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was amazed that Wilentz would usurp Hayword's title of his first volume in 2001 on "The Age of Reagan" especially since Hayward announced that he was going to do a second volume of the same name Wilentz could at least have picked a different title. He confused me into buying his book thinking that I was getting Hayward's. Shame--and Wilentz owes me a refund.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was fooled by the title of this book. Mr. Wilentz is a liberal who bashes Reagan and Bush. I should have suspected something when Mr. Wilentz indicates that the Supreme Court chose the president in 2000. I have a question for Mr. Wilentz, what would have happened if the Supreme Court allowed the Florida recount to continue? The same result as three news organizations concluded after they did a recount - Bush won Florida, and the presidency. If you want a liberal bias view of the political history from 1974 to 2008, then this book is a good one. Unfortunate, Mr. Wilentz doesn't give President Reagan the credit he deserves.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a major disappointment. When I purchased it I thought that it would be a scholarly, objective assessment of the Reagan presidency and the era it spawned. Instead this book turned out to be a highly partisan work that is mainly dedicated to trashing Ronald Reagan¿s presidential legacy. Without a doubt there were mistakes during the Reagan presidency. Our Marines were needlessly killed as sitting ducks in a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon. Saving and Loan deregulation resulted in massive fraud and losses that were born by the taxpayers. And the weapons for hostages aspect of the Iran ¿ Contra scandal was wrong, disturbing and disgusting. But there were many positive aspects too. The economy under Ronald Reagan greatly improved in large part because of his tax cutting policies. Nuclear arms reductions between the U.S. and Soviet Union reached historic proportions. The groundwork was set for the fall of the Iron Curtain and ultimately the Soviet Union. And perhaps most important of all Americans began to feel good about themselves and their country after years of corruption during the Nixon administration and failure under the Carter administration. Professor Wilentz gives Ronald Reagan no credit for these successes at all. All of them were due to dumb luck or someone else¿s efforts in Professor Wilentz¿ stilted analysis. Later the professor complains about the results of the 2000 presidential election and the Supreme Court decision that ended the endless recounts. All of the clichés mouthed by sorehead Democrats are repeated here. And he fails to mention that subsequent recounts by liberal friendly publications, like The New York Times, came up with the same result. Al Gore lost Florida and the election by a whisker. If I were to grade Professor Wilentz on his work, I would give him a ¿C¿ for stating the facts and an ¿F¿ for objectively. The book can only be described as a hymnal for the Reagan and Republican hating extreme liberal Democratic choir.