May 17, 2008


The Long Shadow: a review of THE AGE OF REAGAN: A History, 1974-2008 By Sean Wilentz (DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, NY Times Book Review)

[T]he main thrust of Wilentz’s thesis is fair-minded, with a slight center-left tilt. It’s hard to dispute his notion that the current Great Society rollback is straight from the Reagan playbook: tax breaks for corporations, a “unitary executive” theory of presidential power, welfare-state slashing, a federal judiciary bent rightward, and even the promotion of “intelligent design” over Darwinism in some schools. But instead of belittling Reagan, Wilentz — who paints a picture of a desultory Democratic Party in the 1970s and ’80s — offers grudging admiration for his political adroitness. “In his political persona, as well as his policies, Reagan embodied a new fusion of deeply conservative politics with some of the rhetoric and even a bit of the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier,” he writes. “This is not to say that Reagan alone caused the long wave of conservative domination — far from it. But in American political history 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.”

Much like James T. Patterson’s fine “Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore,” Wilentz’s book begins with Richard Nixon’s collapse in 1974. Amid the felonies of Watergate, Nixon had nevertheless promoted civil rights, wilderness preservation, détente and other “feel good” Democratic ideals. Rebuking both Brooks Brothers elites like Nelson Rockefeller and cowboy libertarians like Barry Goldwater, he represented the heart and soul of the Republican establishment circa 1972. His resignation — which Wilentz says ended America’s “gravest constitutional and political crisis since the Civil War and Reconstruction” — left a gaping void in the political landscape. The Democratic Party couldn’t find permanent entry, so in walked Ronald Reagan on cue from stage right.

Using John Updike’s satirical novel “Memories of the Ford Administration” as his starting point, Wilentz breezes through Gerald Ford’s 896 days in office, regarding them as essentially failed and even insinuating that his pardon of Nixon — nowadays widely seen as a healing accomplishment — was a mistake. The net effect of Ford’s White House tenure was “to push many ex-Democrats as well as longtime conventional Republicans into the political camp of the pro-Reagan right.” By 1976, when Reagan tried to wrest the nomination from Ford, this actor turned politician had mobilized varied constituencies, including blue-collar whites, evangelical Christians, “Southern strategy” bigots, law-and-order suburbanites and anti-Communist hawks. In foreign affairs, Reagan’s New Right coalition wanted to maintain ownership of the Panama Canal, abandon arms limitation talks, keep American troops in Southeast Asia and flush the very concept of détente into the Neville Chamberlain appeasement toilet. On the domestic front, this coalition held an almost mystical belief in supply-side economics. Reagan may have lost out to Ford, Wilentz argues, but he had cobbled together a powerful army of foot soldiers.

...RWR was still too much the New Dealer to confront the welfare-state, which he saved instead. It took the Pinochet/Thatcher example for Bill Clinton/Newt Gingrich and W to begin reforming it along Third Way lines. This makes the Iron Lady the arguably more influential figure of our era.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 17, 2008 6:59 AM

I'm only reading the excerpt, so there may be a context issue, but I love that Nixon's resignation "left a gaping void landscape, the Democratic party couldn't find permanent entry (??)..." viola, Ronald Reagan.

Huh? It's no denigration of Reagan to point out that he might have had a tougher "entry" had not the hapless and pathetic Djimmi Carter set the foundation for Republican triumph. I speak as one who really had no clue or care how I would vote in '76 (at age 15), and was a lifelong Republican by 1980.

Maybe Wilentz covers that issue more than what we see here, but one can be forgiven for a belief that the utter failure of a Democratic President who truly exemplified the parties core (such as they are) beliefs of how the country should be run somehow doesn't get much discussion in his work.

Djimmih remains an honored guest at Democratic events, his style is disconcertingly repeated by a certain Illinois Senator, and history, as we know, repeats. (shudder)

Posted by: Andrew X at May 17, 2008 10:52 AM

The title of Wilentz's book certainly has quite a sense of deja vu about it, eh?

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at May 17, 2008 7:25 PM