Reagan in Retrospect
How the 40th president looks to history.
May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
Morning in America
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?)
There are lots of contradictory judgments that are difficult to sort out. On one page, we hear of Reagan's incremental centrism, and on the next page we are told of "Reagan's updated, more enlightened version of nineteenth-century Social Darwinism," a silly caricature that hasn't seen much daylight since Haynes Johnson peddled it in Sleepwalking Through History. Troy endorses the view that "Reagan helped leach America's 'social capital,' pollute America's 'social ecology,' and diminish Americans' sense of citizenship and community." He ushered in a "new era of greed and ostentation." Troy deprecates the prideful flag-waving that occurred in the 1980s as superficial and jingoistic rather than as a meaningful indicator of renewed citizenship. The prosperity of the 1980s was mostly an illusion--Paul Krugman told us so!--that the new Gilded Age soaps like Dynasty and Dallas abetted. (Troy's account of supply-side economics is completely botched, though given the Jesuitical fissures among supply-siders, this is forgivable.)
And yet, with all this ruin and moral decay, at the end Troy concludes that "all kinds of things actually improved [in the 1980s]. There was also a community-mindedness, an altruism, a goodness that was and remains characteristically American." So, where are we supposed to come down on the 1980s? It doesn't help when Troy says things such as the decade generated a "mass epidemic of psychic distress" without offering a single piece of data to substantiate--or even explain--this kind of sweeping assertion.
Troy's efforts to minimize Reagan can be best seen in his recurrent formulation that Reagan's contribution to a positive trend was "mostly negative." A good example is inflation, where Troy writes that "Reagan's achievement was mostly negative--he let the Fed do its job," partly through "his natural passivity." While narrowly true, this shows Troy's churlishness. As Milton Friedman has remarked repeatedly, "No other president would have stood by and let [Paul] Volcker push the economy into recession by restricting the money supply so sharply," which suggests a positive rather than a negative quality. And no one familiar with the story of Reagan's first meeting with Volcker in early 1981 would use the word "passive" to describe Reagan's relationship with the Fed.
In sharp contrast to Morning in America, John Ehrman's The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan offers a more controlled narrative that has the added benefit of copious references and real data to substantiate its judgments. The best way of grasping the gulf between Morning in America and The Eighties is to see how each book handles an important anomaly of the Reagan story. Both books note that Reagan's 1980 electoral vote landslide obscured the fact that he assumed office with the lowest public approval ratings of any incoming president ever. Troy notes that "Reagan lacked the mandate for change that most people thought he now had," while Ehrman similarly writes that "the belief that Reagan's victory represented the start of a revolution overstated the case." The 1980 vote, both authors note, was more a repudiation of Carter than an affirmative mandate for Reagan.
But could not the same have been said of Franklin Roosevelt's victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932, especially since FDR campaigned on an orthodox platform of balancing the budget that gave no hint of the shape of the New Deal to come? In sharp contrast to FDR, Reagan came to office with the best-defined and best-advertised governing program of any incoming president in the 20th century. Troy writes that "the president-elect had set off to create a mandate--or an illusion of one--that the voters had refused to provide." A few pages later he adds, "The American people had not given him the mandate he sought, so he conjured one up."
Troy's word choices--"illusion" and "conjure"--make it seem as though American voters had no idea how Reagan would govern (or were perhaps against it), and that Reagan generated his impressive political momentum by some kind of legerdemain.
Realignments are determined by whether the winning party coming out of an election produces a new governing philosophy that enables it to win an enduring majority in successive elections. It is impossible to make out from Troy's manifold contradictions where he comes down on this question. Ehrman sets up his consideration of how Reagan generated his political momentum with an excellent synopsis of the collapse of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Ehrman understands that a large part of the reason for Reagan's soft incoming poll numbers was the ideological vacuum in American politics that was open for Reagan to fill.
Where Troy sees "conjuring" and imagery, Ehrman sees a substantial governing philosophy being asserted. Ehrman argues by the end of his book that Reagan succeeded in establishing conservatism as the dominant political ideology in America: "At the start of the 1980s, conservatism had been the home of political outsiders. At the end of the decade, it dominated American politics and set the country's agenda, while liberalism searched for a way to confront it effectively." He is careful to qualify this judgment with the proper caveats about the nonideological nature of American politics and the gradual nature of change in American public life.
Along with his supple political judgments, Ehrman offers a lucid and balanced assessment of economic issues. He corrects the record or offers contrary evidence on nearly every economic controversy of the time, with the partial exception, oddly enough, of Reagan's income tax rate cuts, whose full effects Ehrman covers much less completely than other issues. But his account sparkles on the budget and trade deficits, the wave of corporate mergers and takeovers, "competitiveness" and industrial policy (which, he shrewdly observes, hurt Democrats), income inequality and income mobility, the supposed decline of the middle class, and the Gramm-Rudman deficit act, which he calls "one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible laws ever passed."
Ehrman offers the best discussion of economic issues of the period since Richard McKenzie's 1994 account, What Went Right in the 1980s. In contrast to Troy's equivocal conclusions, Ehrman is confident enough to say that "except for the displacement of lower-skilled workers, almost all these [economic] changes left Americans better off at the end of the Reagan years than at their beginning." For his careful judgment of economics alone, Ehrman's work deserves to become one of the standard reference works for the Reagan period, not least for his 69 pages of copious source notes and data tables in the appendix.
Liberals mostly left Reagan alone during the second half of the 1990s and up to his death last year, in part because their energies were absorbed propping up Bill Clinton and attacking George W. Bush, and in part because his tragic illness put him off limits, to a certain extent. The rapid, favorable reappraisal of Reagan that occurred as we learned of his original writings and appreciated anew his achievements would not go unchallenged for very long, however. The contrast between Morning in America and The Eighties shows that the revisionist wars over Reagan and his legacy will be just as divisive and acrimonious as the contemporary arguments were during that decade.
Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980.