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Oct.22, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 3

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Rethinking Reagan

Liberal historian Sean Wilentz still disagrees with the conservative president, but gives credit where it’s due

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the October22, 2008, issue


Ricardo Barros


“Welcome to the Age of Reagan.”
With those words, Sean Wilentz greets the 15 students who have enrolled in the seminar he is teaching this semester, but he might as well be speaking to anyone who has lived through the past generation. The course is aptly called “The Age of Reagan,” which is also the title of Wilentz’s latest book, published in the summer by HarperCollins. In it, the historian surveys the political landscape from 1974 to 2008, from Richard Nixon’s resignation to the War on Terror, arguing that it was a period dominated by the former film star, union leader, corporate pitchman, and California governor who served as the 40th president of the United States.

“Actually,” Wilentz continues, amending himself, “it still is the Age of Reagan. It may not be much longer.”

To his students and his readers, Wilentz states his thesis clearly, one that has surprised as many on the right (given its author) as it has irritated on the left: Ronald Reagan was the single most important American political figure of the post-World War II era — more important to the country’s development than Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. The avatar of modern conservatism, Reagan still casts a shadow almost 20 years after he left office and four years after his death. For those who lived through the period, it is astonishing to read Wilentz’s assertion that the Age of Reagan lasted longer than the Age of Jefferson or the Age of Jackson, longer than the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, and almost as long as the New-Deal-to-Great-Society period that might be called the Age of Roosevelt. Can this be? Ronald Reagan?

The students in Wilentz’s class were no more than toddlers when Reagan left office; a desire to make sense of the political history of our times attracted them to the seminar. The students — all juniors and seniors — “don’t quite know what to make of [Reagan],” he says. “They haven’t studied this era as history. Nobody has.”

Alec Williams ’09 says he chose the course because he was “interested in what constitutes Reaganism and its enduring popularity.” Robert Richard ’09 hopes to gain a “better understanding of what is going on now.” A few of the students already count themselves as Reagan fans. Brandon McGinley ’10, a managing editor of the Princeton Tory, is one of them, but he says that “it would be nice to spend a semester studying him objectively and examining some of what I think I know about him.” In addition to The Age of Reagan, the class’s basic text, students are reading a sampling of the many memoirs from the period, including Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw at the Revolution (1990), as well as Sidney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1988), Gerald Posner’s biography of Ross Perot, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which drew her to Reagan’s attention and, some say, led to her appointment as U.N. ambassador. Making good use of the Internet, the class is reading everything from the transcripts of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings in 1991 to numerous presidential speeches.

The class — like the book — is a departure for Wilentz on a few levels. For one thing, he is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era — evidence that his academic specialty is an earlier time. His first book, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (1984), explored the period immediately after the nation’s founding, as did his most famous work, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which won the Bancroft Prize in 2006 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Then, too, Wilentz has developed a reputation as a public intellectual of the center-left, a partisan Democrat and intellectual heir to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Over the last decade, Wilentz has injected himself into several controversies, warning the members of the House Judiciary Committee in 1998 that if they voted to impeach Bill Clinton, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness”; nominating George W. Bush in Rolling Stone as the worst president in U.S. history; and aggressively championing the primary candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton while engaging in a dustup in the blogosphere and in print with Barack Obama supporters over which campaign had played the race card first. Such exposure has placed Wilentz in the middle of some bitter public frays: After he wrote an essay for Newsweek last summer criticizing intellectuals for going easy on Obama, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol fired back on the TPMCafe Web site: “Any of us from the progressive side of academia who run into Sean Wilentz ... should cross to the other side of the street and keep moving!” Wilentz brushes off such attacks as “the price of doing business.”

The Age of Reagan has raised some eyebrows, even as it has garnered largely favorable reviews. “Strange to think that Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, would embrace Ronald Reagan as the historic alpha dog of postmodern American politics,” writes Douglas Brinkley in The New York Times, while calling the book “a smart and accessible overview.” Even those who have found fault with the book’s focus — some arguing that it should have gone back further to indict Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, others that he should have been harder on the failures of Bill Clinton — have praised its scholarship. In a review for the online magazine Salon.com that was grudgingly titled, “Why Ronald Reagan Didn’t Completely Suck,” Louis Bayard ’85 mourns that Wilentz was “the kind of liberal scholar who, when I was attending his lectures more than 20 years ago, could be counted on to jab the Reagan administration every chance he got.” But even Bayard reluctantly concedes that Wilentz has made the case for Reagan’s significance. Meanwhile, no less a GOP stalwart than Kevin Phillips, a strategist for Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, acknowledges in The Washington Post that Wilentz “deserves kudos for biting off a challenge that few historians would have dared to undertake.”

Still, why bite off the challenge of studying Ronald Reagan? And why now?

The author answers that he decided to study Reagan for the best reason a historian can have: because no one else had done so. “When F.D.R. died, everybody was writing about him,” Wilentz explains. “In Reagan’s case, among academic historians there was much more misgiving. You have a lot of hagiography from the right and demonology from the left. That can only get you so far. Here we are in 2008. Ronald Reagan hasn’t been president for 20 years — that’s a long-enough time to begin to come to terms historically with what his presidency meant.”

Wilentz continues, “I didn’t just want to write about the Reagan presidency. I wanted to write about how it came to be and what its consequences have been. Then it struck me that we are really at the end of an era, that what had come to dominate American politics is now in a state of disarray.” Reagan, furthermore, was famously opaque, a man who even drove his own biographer, Edmund Morris, to invent scenes and dialogue in order to explain him. That elusiveness, which Wilentz attributes in part to Reagan’s theatrical training, only made him a more attractive subject.

There seems also to have been a third, professional motivation. Wilentz uses this book, as he did The Rise of American Democracy, to rehabilitate the field of political-history writing, a field that examines how power is gained and exercised, and once was dominated by historian giants such as George Bancroft, Charles Beard, and Schlesinger himself. Political history fell into disfavor during the 1960s and ’70s, especially on the left, where it was viewed as too narrow and privileged, yielding to social history; people’s history; racial, ethnic, consumer, and gender studies; and other “bottom-up” history. Political historians did themselves no favors by making their work increasingly quantitative and abstract, an exercise that, Wilentz says, “got you hipness points” among fellow historians but at the cost of a popular audience.

Wilentz grew up steeped in discussions of history, literature, and the arts, as well as politics. His father and uncle owned the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, a place where beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg might show up to read his work. (Wilentz also grew up with a love of popular music, to which he has married his historical training by editing a collection of essays about the American ballad and earning a Grammy nomination for the liner notes he wrote for a Bob Dylan CD.) His earliest political memory is of watching John F. Kennedy speak at the 1960 Democratic convention, and that attachment to the mainstream liberalism the Kennedys espoused continued — in 1964, Wilentz, then a teenager, worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s New York senatorial campaign.

Nineteen sixty-eight, a defining year in American politics, was one for Wilentz as well, as he witnessed the crack-up of the Roosevelt coalition firsthand. He started off working for R.F.K.’s presidential campaign, but after Kennedy’s assassination transferred his support to South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. Wilentz attended the fractious Democratic convention that year in Chicago but watched from the gallery, rather than among the mob in the street, as the party tore itself apart. It is a split, he writes, that still has not healed completely. When Wilentz was an undergraduate at Columbia during the Vietnam era (he earned a second bachelor’s degree at Oxford and a Ph.D. at Yale), the lines between traditional liberals and radicals were fluid. Wilentz recalls that he “floated in and out” of both groups, finally breaking with the hard-core left when its protests turned violent. He did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 or 1984, and says he would not do so today if Reagan were still around — his disagreements with Reagan’s policies remain too substantial. “But I’d have cast a more thoughtful vote against him,” he says.

Wilentz comes neither to bury Reagan nor to praise him, but to take a first crack at historical evaluation, a task he hopes others will continue. He says he chose to open The Age of Reagan with President Nixon’s resignation because that event, coupled with the discrediting of traditional liberalism after the Vietnam War, marked the collapse of the political center for both parties. Into that breach rode Reagan, who drew on the intellectual antecedents of William F. Buckley’s National Review but created his own unique coalition of social and economic conservatives, hawks, libertarians, Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians, and disaffected blue-collar workers (who came to be known as Reagan Democrats) into a new and electorally potent whole. Reagan also had the political shrewdness to build a coalition whose geographic base was in the South and West, areas of the country that just were beginning to swell in population.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Oct.22, 2008