The Magazine

Reagan in Retrospect

How the 40th president looks to history.

May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Morning in America

How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s

by Gil Troy

Princeton University Press, 417 pp., $29.95

The Eighties

America in the Age of Reagan

by John Ehrman

Yale University Press, 296 pp., $27.50

THERE ARE AT LEAST THREE major cycles to the historical process of judging presidents. There is the initial summation upon leaving office. Then there is a reappraisal period, when we start to recall the unappreciated virtues of these men, and when previously secret documents and circumstances shed new light on a president's designs and actions. And finally there is revisionism, which has epicycles of its own.

Modern presidents usually fare poorly in the initial summation upon leaving office: Harry Truman was unpopular, Dwight Eisenhower was a dunce, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush were failures, while Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were something worse. Ronald Reagan, though still popular with the American people in 1989, got the usual rough treatment during his first few years out of office. While he may have restored America's morale, critics said, he was an out-of-touch man whose ruinous economic policies spelled doom for the next generation.

The Reagan reappraisal began early, with the collapse of communism, and culminated with the stunning revelations of Reagan's own extensive writings, which showed not only an active mind but one more engaged than the critics (and even some friends) imagined. While the diehard anti-anti-Communists still resist acknowledging Reagan's role in ending the Cold War, the preponderance of evidence is producing another landslide for the Gipper.

This leaves Reagan's role in domestic matters as the main free-fire zone for historical argument as Reagan now enters the revisionist cycle of historical evaluation. The liberal charge that Reagan was midwife to a "decade of greed" stuck to him for several years after he left office. Indeed, Bill Clinton prominently embraced the theme in his 1992 campaign; but the spectacle of the dot-com boom and bust in the 1990s made 1980s materialism appear minor league (but more solid) by comparison.

This hasn't stopped liberals who decried the 1980s as the "decade of greed" from labeling the 1990s "the fortunate decade," since their guy was in power. Just as the ongoing historical arguments about the New Deal are a proxy for the contemporary partisan debate over the role of government, we are now set to argue for decades about the 1980s because it is the fulcrum for the conservative challenge to post-New Deal liberalism.

Two new books wade into the thicket, and offer sharply contrasting views of the 1980s. In Morning in America, Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University, offers a cultural history of the Reagan years, making much out of forgotten totems such as Hill Street Blues, The Big Chill, and the new Coke. Troy chose this course in hopes of finding "a more synthetic, less politicized approach" to Reagan and his times, but he came up with a book that seems to have been more calculated to keep his faculty club membership in good standing. If Morning in America were dissected into a detailed schematic, it would have more balancing tests than a Supreme Court opinion. When summed up, however, the balance of Troy's judgment that "for better or worse, we live in a Reaganized America" comes down predominantly on the side of "worse."

On the one hand, Troy assures us that Reagan "had depth . . . Reagan was a thinker, a writer, an engaged politician." Reagan was bold and possessed "visionary pragmatism." His intelligence shined through in the epic 1981 legislative fight over his economic program, he showed skill in foreign policy, and he "saved the presidency from irrelevance." But Troy's denigrations dominate the overall picture. The same Reagan who is an intelligent visionary also has a "childlike Being There dimension," whose success owed to "saccharine political appeal" and public ignorance.

Troy validates the premise of nearly every eighties-era liberal caricature and complaint about Reagan: He was insouciant and insensitive, a practitioner of "rhetorical inflation," a "celebrity president" whose "triumphalism ushered in an age of excess." Even Reagan's own aides, Troy reminds us, said at the time that he was clueless, doddering, out of touch, and ineffectual--without pausing to consider whether these aides might have tried to exploit the space the modest Reagan left open around him to inflate their own cosmic importance. (It is significant to note, isn't it, that none of Reagan's aides make these remarks today?)