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: A History, 1974–2008 (Harper) 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 2001 Reagan book, the first of a projected two-volume 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.