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

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’sNational 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.

Far from the scowling conservatism of Robert A. Taft or Barry Goldwater, Reagan brought to his presidency his famous sunny optimism. “Reagan respected tradition,” Wilentz argues. “He talked about John Winthrop and the City upon a Hill — but he also quoted F.D.R. He was looking to the future. He said our best days are ahead of us. That’s something that made Reagan special.” 

Several facets of Reagan’s life and presidency have surprised Wilentz. The greatest surprise was Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear warfare, something liberals and many conservatives failed to appreciate at the time. “Reagan deserves posterity’s honor,” Wilentz writes, “not for adhering stubbornly to the ideas and strategies of Cold War conservatism ... but for knowing when to transcend and, finally, reject outdated and counterproductive ideas regarding nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union.” That led Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to forge a partnership that led to a de-escalation, and ultimate end, of the Cold War, which Wilentz counts as the administration’s greatest achievement.

Although Reagan supported a huge (and, Wilentz argues, largely wasteful) military buildup and engaged in covert proxy wars in Central America, he was not a militarist. To the contrary, Wilentz writes, Reagan used military force sparingly: the short invasion of Grenada in 1983, and air strikes on Libya in 1986, for example. When military intervention failed, as it did after Reagan committed U.S. forces to a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, he quickly withdrew them. In domestic policy, Reagan also knew how to compromise, Wilentz argues: In exchange for reducing top marginal tax rates, he agreed to allow some planned tax cuts to be postponed and added taxes on gasoline (a regressive approach to increasing tax revenue). Reagan spoke out on social causes dear to the evangelical right without wasting too much political capital on fights he could not win.

That makes it hard to dismiss Reagan, as many liberals have done and as Wilentz refuses to do, as all smile and no substance, an “amiable dunce” as Clark Clifford once put it. Wilentz gives the former president his due as a political leader of both vision and subtlety. No less a liberal than Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has observed that Reagan was an effective president because he took ideas seriously.

One popular criticism of Reagan, particularly in his second term, was that he was a puppet whose strings often were pulled by sharper advisers. That analysis seemed to gain some depth when Reagan acknowledged, five years after leaving office, that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Wilentz insists that he found no evidence of this in Reagan’s diaries or other writings from the period. He says that Reagan was fully engaged in the details of policy throughout his administration, although he was happy to use the perception of him as a dodderer to his own advantage — for example, in escaping responsibility for involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Wilentz neither ignores nor excuses the Iran-Contra scandal, and The Age of Reagan is hardly a Reagan apology. He sharply criticizes Reagan’s lack of leadership on issues from AIDS to civil rights, on the failures of supply-side economics, and the loose oversight that led to the savings-and-loan crisis and made his one of the most scandal-ridden administrations in history. Wilentz punctures what he sees as the myth that Reagan’s economic program revived the economy, although it increased the disparity in living standards between rich and poor. He also notes that, despite Reagan’s talk of reducing government, the size of the federal bureaucracy barely budged during his terms of office. Even Reagan’s reputation as a leader is somewhat overrated: His job-performance ratings in public-opinion polls place him only in the middle among modern presidents, at about the same level as Bill Clinton but lower than Kennedy or Eisenhower.

Those shortcomings must be considered, but do not, Wilentz concludes, override Reagan’s accomplishments. “Reagan wanted to do a few simple things,” he says. “He wanted to reduce the top marginal tax rates, which he succeeded in doing, making the tax code much more regressive. He wanted to end the Cold War, which he didn’t do, but the Cold War is over. And he wanted to reduce the size of government, in which he was a failure. But he’s still batting .666, which in baseball will get you into the Hall of Fame.” Reagan also bent the political debate toward his chosen issues for a generation, Wilentz says — a fair definition of presidential greatness.

Reaganism continued even after Reagan left office, but because it was such a powerful blend of policy and personality, no one plausibly could claim to be his successor. Even as George H.W. Bush won what was essentially a third Reagan term in 1988, he admitted that “the vision thing” was not his strong suit, while his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, insisted that the election was not about ideology at all, but about simple technical competence. In assessing Reagan’s legacy, Wilentz does not spare the Democrats, who he says deluded themselves that they had lost the White House only because of Reagan’s slick salesmanship. Although Bill Clinton tried mightily to reweave the frayed strands of the old Roosevelt coalition, he was done in by his own political ineptitude and personal immaturity, Wilentz says, as well as an increasingly sharp and strident Republican congressional leadership of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay, all of whom counted themselves as Reagan’s political progeny. 

George W. Bush sometimes has been called Ronald Reagan’s true heir, but Wilentz argues that the current administration is not Reaganism taken to its logical conclusion, but something that has gone far beyond it, in asserting unchecked presidential power and politicizing policymaking. Reagan’s pragmatism is particularly lacking today, he says, while the state of the economy and the ongoing war in Iraq have undermined the right’s claim to superior leadership on those issues. Then, too, the issues on which Reagan rose to power largely have been achieved. “The age of Reagan,” Wilentz wrote earlier this year in The New Republic, “born out of the center’s collapse in the ’60s and ’70s, has, thanks to George W. Bush, finally lost its relevance, except as a nostalgic touchstone of bygone Republican glory.”

Wilentz takes The Age of Reagan into this spring’s presidential primaries, and his seminar will have the fun of meeting through the fall election. Wilentz remains unconvinced that the Democrats understand why they have had so much trouble over the last 40 years. “They thought that it was just a matter of being smeared,” he contends. “Yes, the Republicans are very good at Swift-boating, but believe me: John Kerry did not lose in 2004 simply because he was Swift-boated. And if the Democrats think that he was, they’re making a mistake.”  

The Democratic party, Wilentz thinks, still lacks the passionately committed base of voters such as the Christian evangelicals who made the difference for George W. Bush in key states (and may or may not turn out for John McCain), and Democrats have not fully convinced the country that they can be strong on national defense. The old Democratic schism between liberals and minorities on the one hand and less-educated, white blue-collar workers on the other has not healed, as the bitter primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama illustrated. Wilentz believes it is possible that Obama could succeed in forging a new coalition of African-Americans, academics, and liberals. But he points out that the party has tried to do so before and failed — and that even if the effort succeeds, “that’s a very different Democratic Party than what you had before,” one shorn of much of the Roosevelt base.

During the Republican primaries, each candidate could claim to represent a strand of the Reagan coalition — evangelicals for Mike Huckabee, defense hawks for Rudolph Giuliani, libertarians for Ron Paul, anti-tax business conservatives for Mitt Romney — but none could pull those strands together. Out of that muddle emerged McCain, who served in Congress during Reagan’s presidency but who has spent much of his career at war with the party’s right wing. Far from showing the continued vitality of Reaganism, Wilentz sees McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate as a further sign of its exhaustion, a wild-card compromise when the choices McCain preferred proved unacceptable because they were pro-choice.

“Where is that going to go?” Wilentz asks. “I don’t know.” The most striking characteristic of this political year has been its volatility. Stuck with an unpopular war and a weak economy, the Republicans may be splitting much as the Democrats did in the late 1960s, in a way as much a victim of their successes as of their failures. Yet no matter who wins the presidential election in November, Wilentz argues, the new president almost certainly will face a Democratic Congress, making it impossible even for a Republican president to govern on Reagan’s issues.

“It’s gone,” Wilentz says, quoting Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign director. “The Reagan coalition is gone.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.