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The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

by Sean Wilentz, Dick Hill (Narrated by)

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Phillips
Wilentz deserves kudos for biting off a challenge that few historians would have dared to undertake. All too many U.S. political chronicles have been written by specialists who present events in four- or eight-year segments minimally encumbered by a larger economic, political or historical context. By contrast, Wilentz goes for sweep, and in a number of ways achieves it.
—The Washington Post
Douglas Brinkley
in The Age of Reagan—a smart and accessible overview of the long shadow cast by our 40th president—Wilentz largely abandons partisanship in favor of professionalism. Thus, the supposedly inflexible Reagan emerges here as the pragmatic statesman who greatly reduced the world's nuclear stockpiles…Undoubtedly, Reaganholics will carp that Wilentz has a selective memory (giving more ink to Iran-contra than Reagan's diplomacy with Margaret Thatcher), and progressives will denounce him for drinking Gipper-flavored Kool-Aid (equating Reagan with Franklin D. Roosevelt). But, in truth, the main thrust of Wilentz's thesis is fair-minded, with a slight center-left tilt.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Distinguished Princeton historian Wilentz-winner of a Bancroft Prize for The Rise of American Democracy-makes an eloquent and compelling case for America's Right as the defining factor shaping the country's political history over the past 35 years.

Wilentz argues that the unproductive liberalism of the Carter years was a momentary pause in a general tidal surge toward a new politics of conservatism defined largely by the philosophy and style of Ronald Reagan. Even Bill Clinton, he shows, tacitly admitted the ascendance of many Reaganesque core values in the American mind by styling himself as a centrist "New Democrat" and moving himself and his party to the right.

Wilentz postulates Reagan as the perfect man at the ideal moment, not just ruling his eight years in the White House, but also casting a long shadow on all that followed (a shadow, one might add, still being felt in the Republican presidential campaign today). While examining in detail the low points of Reagan's presidency, from Iran-Contra to his initial belligerence toward the Soviet Union, Wilentz concludes in his superb account that Reagan must be considered one of the great presidents: he reshaped the geopolitical map of the world as well as the American judiciary and bureaucracy, and uplifted an American public disheartened by Vietnam and the grim Carter years. While much has been written by Reagan admirers, Wilentz says, "his achievement looks much more substantial than anything the Reagan mythmakers have said in his honor." 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Why don't books have accurate titles? You'd think this one would be about the evident influence of the 43rd president, acknowledged by members of both parties as having wrought major change. Instead, Bancroft Prize winner Wilentz (history, Princeton Univ.; The Rise of American Democracy) presents an extended survey of the past 30 years of Washington politics, writing from left of center as a liberal Democrat. Thus, in his treatment of the 1980s, Reagan gets a lot of blame and none of the credit. Wilentz judges the scandals and accusations of Reagan's administration harshly but is dismissive of those of the Clinton administration. By his own admission, he conducted no interviews for this book on recent history, and he offers no new insights. Worse, he makes these decades boring, notwithstanding their being filled with the kinds of events and personalities that should make history appealing. The results are more like a textbook that dutifully covers all the bases. Only the extended critical bibliographic essay, surveying the vast literature of the period, makes it worth consideration by larger libraries. Richard Reeves's President Reagan: The Triumph of Imaginationis a first-rate, albeit more narrowly focused, alternative. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
—Michael O. Eshleman Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
A distinguished center-left historian surveys U.S. politics over the past 35 years and pronounces Ronald Reagan, like it or not, the era's dominant figure. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the McGovernite Congress elected in 1974 appeared to restore liberalism to its accustomed place as the dominant force in American politics. In fact, the victory disguised years of Democratic Party confusion and intellectual decay. This, plus a growing network of conservative think tanks, institutes and media voices, and the feckless Ford and Carter presidencies, prepared the ground for conservatives to take over the Republican Party and then the country. The movement to shrink government, reduce taxes, reverse the country's moral decline, keep the military strong and fight communism found its perfect champion in the smiling personage of Reagan, who so transformed the terms of political debate that no successor has been able to conduct business without accounting for him. Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.; Andrew Jackson, 2006, etc.) correctly calls for Reagan to be treated seriously by professional historians. He's wrong, though, to think his own political proclivities have not colored the analysis here. The author pays only grudging respect to Reaganism, tellingly defining it as a "distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology." He attributes Reagan's signal achievement-ending the Cold War without bloodshed-as much to Gorbachev. He treats the rest of the Reagan legacy-gutted regulatory agencies, regressive tax policies, politicized judiciary, polarized citizenry-as a set of indisputable, unfortunate facts that the Clinton interregnum barely disrupted. Wilentz declines to predictwhether Bush II will revise and extend conservatism's reach or spark a liberal resurgence. Still, the very fact that a historian of Wilentz's credentials and liberal disposition willingly deals seriously and at such length with Reagan means, in a Nixon-to-China sense, attention must be paid. An insightful analysis of the rise and reign of Reagan; a somewhat less successful explication of the meaning of Reaganism and its implications.
From the Publisher
"Eloquent and compelling.... [A] superb account." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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

Meet the Author

Sean Wilentz is the author of The Rise of American Democracy, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wilentz teaches American history at Princeton University. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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