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The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008by Sean Wilentz
Synopses & Reviews
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 has dominated American politics and government. In The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz accounts for how a conservative movement once deemed marginal managed to seize power and hold it, and the momentous consequences that followed.
Ronald Reagan has been the single most important political figure of this age. Without Reagan, the conservative movement would have never been as successful as it was. In his political persona as well as his policies, Reagan embodied a new fusion of deeply right-leaning politics with some of the rhetoric and even a bit of the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. In American political history there have been a few leading figures who, for better or worse, have placed their political stamp indelibly on their times. They include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt—and Ronald Reagan. A conservative hero in a conservative age, Reagan has been so admired by a minority of historians and so disliked by the others that it has been difficult to evaluate his administration with detachment. Drawing on numerous primary documents that have been neglected or only recently released to the public, as well as on emerging historical work, Wilentz offers invaluable revelations about conservatism's ascendancy and the era in which Reagan was the preeminent political figure.
Vivid, authoritative, and illuminating from start to finish, The Age of Reagan raises profound questions and opens passionate debate about our nation's recent past.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Despite its heft, this book is too short. That is because the subject matter — U.S. political history — is so sweeping and the period dealt with — nearly four decades — is so long. The title of Sean Wilentz's book grandly proclaims 1974 to 2008 as the Age of Reagan. But he notes right away that, absent Watergate, the country's late-20th-century move to the right could have been... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the Age of Nixon. His extension of the Reagan era through 2008 is also debatable, and his coverage of the George W. Bush years is necessarily incomplete, a limitation he acknowledges. So this is not a book for the ages. It includes a persistent anti-Republican tenor, which an Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (to whom the book is dedicated) would not have indulged, despite having more or less similar feelings. Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, has made no secret of his political sympathies: He has actively supported Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy and accused Barack Obama of running a 'deeply dishonest' primary campaign. Two years ago, he argued in an article for Rolling Stone that the current President Bush is 'in serious contention' for the title of worst president in history. Reading 'The Age of Reagan,' one wonders whether his singular praise for Bill Clinton's presidency is principally the judgment of a historian or of a party activist. Nevertheless, 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. He is correct, for example, that although a major trend to the right in U.S. national politics began in the 1960s, Democratic leaders time after time found some reason for perceiving an ongoing or restored liberal dominance — in 1974, in 1982, in 1986-88 and at both the beginning and conclusion of the Clinton era. Reagan was the most successful Republican president of the 1960-2008 period, which can reasonably support naming the larger era after him. Most leaders on the right regard the man as their great hero, and his era — the first term, in particular — as the conservative equivalent of Camelot. Wilentz is also reasonably correct when he says the unfolding conservative zeitgeist of late-20th-century America produced a string of excesses from Watergate and Vietnam down to the George W. Bush years. On the other hand, by formally beginning his narrative in 1974, he manages to avoid any serious analysis of the three-tiered Democratic failure under Lyndon Johnson — a bungled war, unleashed inflation and rioting cities — or the debacle of the presidential nomination and defeat of George McGovern in 1972, which split the Democratic party like a ripe melon. Quite a few problems of the last three decades also trace back to the exhaustion of American establishment liberalism as either the nation's governing party or as a tough-minded opposition. Eighty percent of Americans feel that this country is on the wrong track, but both parties took turns laying it. Besides overlooking these weaknesses, Wilentz also falls short by underemphasizing economic policies and trends. The United States is now caught in the unraveling of a two-decade buildup of debt and speculation during which the financial sector ballooned to unprecedented economic domination, capturing some 20 percent of the gross domestic product. True, Reagan and both Bush presidents played prominent roles in this buildup, but so did Alan Greenspan, Bill Clinton and Clinton's treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin. Because capital gains tax receipts from the overheated stock market in the late 1990s briefly suppressed the U.S. budget deficit, little attention has been paid to the massive Clinton-era increase in private debt, especially borrowing by domestic financial institutions. In tandem with periodic financial bailouts, this debt helped to fuel the bubble that led to a market bust in 2000. Clinton also promoted the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, thereby allowing banks to combine with insurance companies, brokerage firms, mortgage lenders and just about everything else. In short, the financial framework that is failing us today is the product of a quarter century of bipartisan decision-making. It is also useful to note the author's emphasis on impeachment. He necessarily deals with Nixon's, but the book spends a dozen pages dissecting the case for impeaching Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair, which the Democrats ultimately decided wasn't a good strategy. The impeachment of Clinton is the one he finds deplorable. Surprisingly, he does not delve into the desire of some Democrats to impeach George W. Bush in 2006-07, conceivably because Wilentz feels that, beginning with the Clinton episode, impeachment has gotten out of hand. Probably it has. But future historians reflecting on the period may have to consider impeachment campaigns as part of a repeated aim-taking at presidents seen as failures or scandal perpetrators. Five of our presidents since the '60s have been the subject of impeachment proposals or public discussions: Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush. What is the angst of the Age of Reagan that has brought politics to such a boil? My own view is that 30 or 40 years from now, historians may well call it the Age of Disillusionment. Nobody could have fully developed the ins and outs of these troubled years in just 500-some pages, and Wilentz has not produced a model of chronological exactitude or amplification that others will feel obliged to follow. He does, however, deserve considerable credit for blazing a brave trail in the direction of serious scope and reach. Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of 'Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.'" Reviewed by Kevin Phillips, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
This book by Wilentz (American history, Princeton U.) is not about Ronald Reagan as an individual politician, it is instead a narrative of the era that Reagan embodied, the era of conservative ascendancy in the United States, 1974-2008. Although Reagan might not be the sole focus of this national political history, as "the single most important figure of the age" who was one of few to "put their political stamp indelibly on their time," he and his administration certainly play a central role, which is not to say that Wilentz is a supporter of Reagan or the movement he represented. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From one of the nation's leading historians comes a powerful reappraisal of American political life since the fall of Nixon. 16-page b&w photo insert.
About 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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