The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008, by Sean Wilentz (Harper, 576 pp., $27.95)
Nearly 20 years since he left the White House, Ronald Reagan has begun taking his place in the small gallery of most consequential presidents. Though his admirers accorded him a prominent spot long ago, the story of recent years has been the gradual recognition of Reagan’s achievements among more liberal-minded scholars. John Patrick Diggins’s 2006 book, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, ranked Reagan among America’s three greatest presidents, with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Now comes Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan, and Wilentz’s judgment is only slightly less sweeping: “In American political history,” he writes, “there have been a few leading figures, most of them presidents, who for better or worse have put their political stamp indelibly on their time. They include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt—and Ronald Reagan.”
Those words are especially significant because Wilentz is not only a respected historian—albeit of the Age of Jackson—but also a committed political liberal, a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton’s who testified as an expert witness before the House Judiciary Committee against the impeachment of her husband. He also penned a freewheeling article about George W. Bush in Rolling Stone a few years back, titled “The Worst President in History?”—one of those rhetorical questions that supplies its own answer.
Wilentz believes that the age of Reagan, like those of Jackson and Roosevelt before him, had a long prelude and lengthy aftermath. He begins his history at the end of the Nixon administration—when a conservative ascendancy looked unlikely, but was in retrospect gaining momentum—and ends it with a brief précis of the presidency of George W. Bush, which, he argues, marks the end of the Reagan era. While his political views necessarily shape his assessments, Wilentz is mostly fair and judicious. He packs an enormous amount of detail into his brisk volume, and yet he never seems to skimp, covering fiscal, economic, and foreign policy, judicial appointments, election campaigns, scandals, and the American mood with admirable clarity and concision. His highly readable history offers a challenge to both Reagan detractors and defenders and represents an advance in the Reagan scholarship—which, as he candidly points out, has been slow to develop, thanks to various biases among scholars. (Though he might have shown another scholar some consideration in not copping the title of Steven Hayward’s exhaustive, two-volume Reagan study.)
In surveying the gamut of Reagan’s major policies, Wilentz finds much to dislike and much that he bluntly brands “damaging.” Some of his attacks are more effective than others. He makes much of what he sees as the Reagan administration’s politicized screening of judicial nominees, for example, implying that such processes had previously been free of politics. He is harshly critical of the administration’s civil rights record, though a good portion of his criticism involves its enforcement of affirmative-action policies and other controversial federal efforts “to accelerate racial integration and civil equality.” Wilentz is at his best on the Iran-Contra scandal, presenting a well-reasoned case that the episode represented a constitutional crisis and a challenge to the separation of powers in its “creation of a covert foreign policy beyond the law.” He emphasizes how both the media and Congress, in its eventual investigation, almost immediately narrowed their focus to the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras from weapons sales to Iran—as opposed to the administration’s decision to trade arms for hostages in the first place and its covering up of the initiative, which he considers more serious offenses. Finally, Wilentz’s take on the Reagan economic record is highly critical, if familiar, alleging uneven distribution of economic gains, with wealth skewing upward. He acknowledges that the Reagan recovery was substantial, however, and that the U.S. economy was moribund when Reagan took office.
While Wilentz’s judgments on Reagan’s policies are contentious but fairly argued, his characterizations of conservative and liberal political battles over the last 30 years are sharply skewed and often marred by tonal bias. He consistently describes conservative reform efforts as driven by narrow political considerations, while painting Democratic motives as more principled. Somewhat comically, he continually portrays conservative Republicans as wily, ruthless political operators who make political hay out of everything, and Democrats as hapless and lacking stomach for every fight. He writes that the Democrats were caught “virtually speechless and defenseless” by Republican attacks during Iran-Contra, a characterization that few who remember that period would likely share. Likewise, he renders the Florida recount of 2000 in tones not distinguishable from those of the recent HBO film: it’s the tale of a shrewd, expert political party making mincemeat of the idealistic, slow-footed, naive one that only wants to “count all the votes.”
Reagan’s place in history, of course, is above all linked to the Cold War. Here, the academic debate has begun to narrow, as Wilentz’s verdict—sure to pain liberal partisans—makes clear: Reagan’s “success in helping finally to end the cold war is one of the greatest achievements by any president of the United States,” he writes, “and arguably the greatest single presidential achievement since 1945.” That sounds like game, set, and match, but it’s worth noting the differences Wilentz has with conservatives on how much credit Reagan should receive, and most important, on the character of Reagan’s contribution—which conservatives tend to see as a triumph of principled leadership, but Wilentz views as something closer to pragmatic adaptability. “There is little credible evidence that Reagan’s massive military buildup of the early 1980s did anything to persuade the Kremlin to come to the bargaining table,” Wilentz writes. Such a claim sounds odd when you consider the spiraling Soviet military spending in the 1980s. Wilentz also contests the notion, held by some on the right, that Reagan intentionally set out to bankrupt the Soviets. But even conceding that this wasn’t his explicit plan is not the same as saying that his military buildup had no effect.
Similarly, Wilentz scants the impact of Reagan’s proposed missile-defense system—the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more commonly known as Star Wars—on Soviet thinking. His dismissal flies in the face of the near-desperation with which Mikhail Gorbachev fought to confine SDI to the laboratory. Wilentz argues that the Soviet leader was merely worried about SDI’s political ramifications—its violation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the potential for launching an arms race in space—and not that the system might actually work. But according to Derek Leebaert’s underappreciated Cold War history, The Fifty-Year Wound, senior officials of the Soviet Ministry of Defense convinced Gorbachev that SDI in fact could work; what’s more, they saw no effective way to counter it. Occam’s Razor provides another, simpler way of looking at the SDI question: if SDI posed no threat, and at the same time would cost Reagan so much to explore, why should Gorbachev resist it so fiercely?
Minimizing the impact, then, of Reagan’s toughest Soviet policies, Wilentz instead credits the president with being free enough of ideology to break with hard-line, right-wing dogma and embrace Gorbachev during these crucial years. There is some truth in this: hawks on the right did find Reagan’s relationship with the Soviet leader and his willingness to sign arms-reduction agreements extremely troubling. For Wilentz, Reagan’s dealings with Gorbachev represent an unmistakable shift from confrontation to conciliation, as if Reagan finally succeeded by becoming a liberal. (Similarly, Diggins argued that Reagan ultimately prevailed by “calling off” the Cold War.) But there is less in Reagan’s evolution than meets the eye. Reagan had expressed willingness to meet with Leonid Brezhnev early in his term to discuss arms reduction, and he had made conciliatory overtures to Soviet leaders before Gorbachev. Reagan was indeed more flexibly minded than his most hawkish advisors, and he came to see that the achievement of his objectives was possible through an alteration of tactics. His ability to recognize that the landscape was shifting is a testament to his singular political gifts. But it’s myopic to interpret a leader’s achievement of long-held goals through evolving means as a change of heart.
Still, even with these qualifications, Wilentz confers honor on Reagan that the president’s admirers probably thought they’d never live to see: “If greatness in a president is measured in terms of affecting the temper of the times, whether you like it or not, Reagan stands second to none among the presidents of the second half of the twentieth century.” When such a powerful judgment comes from the other side of the political spectrum, it signals something like consensus.