Dividing lines

David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate and the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

The GENRE of “instant history” has attracted -- and often defeated -- many able writers at least since “Only Yesterday,” Frederick Lewis Allen’s stylish 1931 chronicle of the 1920s. Back then, Allen could merrily shrug off sources and subjects he omitted or overlooked. In contrast, today’s practitioners of recent history need only boot up to confront a galaxy of data on an infinity of topics -- nagging reminders of how much we don’t know and never will. Chronicles of our own yesterdays tend to bloat and sag, lacking clear organizing principles. They read like someone dumped 20 years of Newsweeks on your doorstep.

Not so “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008,” the latest effort to squeeze the rearview-mirror past between two covers. Its author is Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning “The Rise of American Democracy” (2005) and public intellectual par excellence. Long known in academia for “Chants Democratic” (1984), his seminal work on 19th century working-class radicalism, Wilentz has earned a wide following with his virtuosic review-essays in the New Republic and elsewhere, and most recently with his fearless op-ed writing -- emerging this year as a rare skeptic of the Obamamania that has gripped the left-leaning (male) intelligentsia.

Wilentz handles the superabundance of sources confronting modern Frederick Lewis Allens by turning mainly to the stacks of previously published material on his subject, including key primary sources such as Ronald Reagan’s diaries and the Iran-Contra report. He doesn’t flinch from stating that he “did not conduct a single interview in connection with this book.” Notwithstanding his subtitle’s chronological claims, he eases his task by confining his treatment of the current administration to a 25-page epilogue, thus skirting the perils of the “instant” in instant history.

Most important, Wilentz focuses, with an admirable lack of defensiveness, on presidential politics. “I have not been motivated by a wish to discover the deep cultural, economic, social, or psychological factors that might explain recent political history,” he declares. ". . . . I want instead to provide a fresh, succinct, and accessible chronicle of American history, focused on political history, after 1974.” Engrossing, provocative and destined to be influential, “The Age of Reagan” fully succeeds in that mission.

The conflicting goals of comprehensiveness and thematic unity bedevil any project of this sweep. In “Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore” (2005), James T. Patterson opted for the panoramic, covering economics, culture and society alongside Washington politics. In a different fashion, Philip Jenkins’ “Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America” (2006) idiosyncratically explained the post-'60s years as a phase of dark anxiety by burrowing into topics like child abduction and gang violence.


Wilentz tries something in between. With its brisk overview of political events, from the 1975 Mayaguez crisis and Bert Lance to the Enron fiasco and Abu Ghraib, “The Age of Reagan” could anchor any college survey course. (Yes, we’re now teaching “America, 1974-present.”) But the author also homes in on two aspects of this period: first, Reagan and his “distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology”; and second, the disturbingly high number of constitutional confrontations America has faced since Watergate -- to wit, the Iran-Contra affair, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the Florida election fight of 2000.

Reagan aptly dominates the book. The chapters on his two terms span 160 pages, compared to 85 for Clinton’s. Unlike John Patrick Diggins, whose treatise of last year, “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History,” painted the president as an Emersonian romantic, Wilentz doesn’t seek to boldly revise historical opinion about our 40th president; but that modesty of ambition may simply indicate that, two decades after his final bow, opinions on Reagan remain mostly split between hagiographers and unregenerate critics. Notably, Wilentz hails as Reagan’s best biographer the longtime Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon (“President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime”), who is beholden to neither school of Reaganology. Like Cannon’s account, Wilentz’s is utterly fair, albeit more analytical and in places more pointed.

On the one hand, Wilentz explodes the right-wing talking point that America’s renewed militarism after 1981 hastened Communism’s fall; it was Reagan’s utopian idealism about abolishing nukes, he shows, that allowed him to grasp the opportunity in Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise in the Soviet Union. Wilentz likewise refutes the canard that Reagan enjoyed unsurpassed popularity. A simple glance at the poll numbers charting Reagan’s average performance rating, he notes, “places him in the middle tier, on a par with Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton but well below the leaders, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.” And he dispels notions of Reagan as a conservative purist, detailing strategic concessions and compromises with the liberals, who were definitely down in these years but decidedly not out.

WHILE resisting the mythmaking, “The Age of Reagan” also avoids the sneering cliches about the man -- the dimwit, the rigid monomaniac, the extremist who owed his success purely to communication skills -- that have plagued many liberals’ accounts. Taking office after Jimmy Carter, hands down the worst Democratic president of the century, Reagan did seem to be a beneficiary of historical circumstance. But many critics insisted on seeing him that way even after he proved the resonance of his ideas. Wilentz, by contrast, affords Reagan credit for “cementing the alliance between social conservatives and economic libertarian conservatives” and also for “knowing when to transcend and, finally, reject outdated and counterproductive ideas regarding nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union.”

Wilentz’s other signal contribution is to discern a relationship among the “challenges to the nation’s constitutional order” beginning with Watergate -- and then to develop from those confrontations a tale of ideological struggle played out through the evasion and application of laws and norms. He restores the Iran-Contra scandal to the place it fleetingly held as a major event of our times. Challenging the dominant view, he marshals evidence to show that Reagan himself knew of the rogue operation and its probable illegality. Wilentz, indulging his wit, savors the irony of one line Reagan wrote: “ ‘I won’t even write in the diary what we’re up to,’ he wrote -- in the diary.” Iran-Contra mattered, Wilentz argues, because it threatened to launch “an ambitious, permanent secret military operation, which would allow the White House to pursue every variety of covert operation completely free of congressional scrutiny or any constitutional constraint,” to paraphrase the congressional testimony of the renegade Reagan aide Oliver North.

Wilentz suggests that the other two major showdowns he details -- the Clinton impeachment and the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 election -- similarly betrayed “how powerful the right became after 1980 -- and how the right has attempted to change, fundamentally, the nation’s political order.” For a book emphasizing constitutional questions, Wilentz includes few Supreme Court decisions; more legal history might have fleshed out this picture of a political order under assault. But he devotes almost a full chapter to each of his fin de siecle crises. In the former case, prosecutor Kenneth Starr and congressional Republicans “established a new standard whereby the House might impeach a president for any alleged crime at all, so long as a majority of members saw fit to label it as a high crime.” In the latter, the high court’s short-circuiting of the effort to learn the election’s actual winner amounted to a rejection of “the basic American democratic principle that, messy as it might be, popular sovereignty is the bedrock of our political institutions.” In neither the impeachment nor the recount fight could Reagan be found, but the twin debacles bore testament to a revolutionary zeal he unleashed. “The Republican ascendancy,” Wilentz writes, " . . . compounded the constitutional crisis of 1973-1974 with new confrontations; and it left the country polarized.”

Wilentz hints at a link between the rise of conservative ideas and the right’s willingness to seize the machinery of government to gain or maintain power for itself. But he doesn’t come off as partisan. And while he’s correct to join other historians in noting a rightward shift in the post-Watergate political culture, the most striking fact about Reagan’s era that emerges here is not the rout of liberalism -- although it had certainly fallen on hard times until Clinton resuscitated it -- but the persistence, all along, of deep ideological conflict. After Nixon, the comity that had prevailed in the face of Cold War threats largely evaporated.

After all, not just Reagan but Clinton and both Bushes experienced wildly oscillating fortunes and tremendous victories paired with crushing defeats. The three right-wing power grabs that Wilentz highlights, moreover, each had a flip side of strong liberal resistance -- as seen in the reining in of Reagan’s adventurism abroad, in the acquittal of Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s discomfiture, and in the agitation on the left of late. Just as the author’s Reagan isn’t the pure ideologue of liberal fears and conservative fantasies but a soul divided between pragmatic and romantic strains, so Wilentz’s “Age of Reagan” is not an era of unalloyed rightist rule but a season of enmities, polarization and power struggle. It is only now coming to a close.*