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Reagan and the Historians By: Steven F. Hayward
Claremont Review of Books | Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Books discussed in this essay:

Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, by John Patrick Diggins

The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism, by Thomas W. Evans

The Reagan Diaries, by Ronald Reagan, edited by Douglas Brinkley

The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, by Paul Kengor

The Judge: William P. Clark: Ronald Reagan's Top Hand, by Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner

Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years, by Robert M. Collins

The Reagan book industry is shifting into high gear these days with several important new perspectives on our 40th president and his statecraft. Midge Decter wrote in 1991 that "[i]t will, one day, take a truly gifted writer, perhaps a novelist, to solve the puzzle of such a man." Edmund Morris essentially tried this approach, and made a fool of himself. The new passel of books adds fuel to the debates over Reagan, though it may be wondered whether the best guide to the man isn't still Reagan himself, in the form of his newly published diaries.

Romantic Imagination

Overall, the flood of books is highly encouraging, especially John Patrick Diggins's Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, which, except for the diaries, has attracted the most attention. The great fear of conservatives when the Gipper left office was that the liberal professoriate would "Coolidgize" him. And starting with Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, conservatives got a feeling of déjà vu all over again as liberals deplored the Republican '80s in terms strangely recalling Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., John Hicks, William Leuchtenburg, and other historians who had deplored the Republican '20s. So when a board-certified liberal intellectual like Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center (he worked down the hall from Schlesinger for many years), comes along and ranks Reagan among the four greatest American presidents (alongside FDR, Lincoln, and Washington), Reaganites may be tempted to spike the ball, do an end zone dance, and declare "game over."

But not so fast: a closer look suggests that there may be some mischief afoot. At the end of his preface Diggins discloses that part of his purpose is "[t]o rescue Reagan from many of today's so-called Reaganites." Is he trying to pull off a Brinks Job on us? Cause some dissention in the ranks? The author explains subsequently that he has chiefly in mind the dreaded "neoconservatives," such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who led us into the Iraq War. But the book's comparison of Reagan to Lincoln is also politically problematic, since, as Diggins well knows from his own fine writings on him, significant factions on the Right intensely dislike the Great Emancipator. There would be few better ways to undermine Reagan with some conservatives and libertarians than to link Reagan and Lincoln.

Anyone who has read the author's previous intellectual histories will know that he is not a man given to mischievous errands, or to kowtowing to anyone's agenda. His highly original and provocative approach to Reagan breaks new ground in understanding American political culture, and deserves careful reflection. He gets several things absolutely right that have escaped the gaze of other liberals who have written with grudging respect toward Reagan, such as Richard Reeves in his President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (2005; see "Respecting Reagan," CRB, Fall 2006).

The typical liberal line today is that Reagan was right on the Cold War, but his domestic policy was a train wreck. Diggins perceives the fundamental unity between Reagan's domestic and foreign policy, based in his idiosyncratic—the book rightly says romantic—imagination. And unlike Reeves and even sympathetic writers such as Lou Cannon, Diggins gets Reagan's economic policy correct. He offers an unusual reversal of another familiar theme of the president's critics, that Reagan was a creation of his superb staff work. Diggins flips this around, attributing most of the administration's mistakes and black marks to the staff, who didn't share Reagan's imagination and good judgment.

Yet there are several aspects of this portrait that are arguable or in which Diggins doesn't carry the analysis far enough. For instance, he calls Reagan our "Emersonian President"—and certainly he lives up to everyone's favorite Emerson aphorism that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Diggins sees Reagan as emulating Emerson's self-made transcendent theology of a benign cosmos in which evil is an aberration, and there is much in Reagan's brief but frequent religious professions to bolster this identification. But Diggins wants to make him into a crypto-liberal, too:

Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo. Reagan's relation to liberalism may illuminate modern America more than his relation to conservatism.... What Reagan sought to do for America has been the goal of liberalism since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: to get rid of authority, the meddlesome intrusions of controlling institutions, whether of church or state.

Hold it right there, as Reagan might have said in one of his western movies. Diggins's thesis is correct insofar as conservatives are all "liberals" in the 18th-century meaning of the term. The trouble is that he glides over what can perhaps be described as the intellectual civil war over liberalism's meaning that has been raging for more than a century. Suffice it to say that today's liberalism stands for nothing so much as for the "meddlesome intrusions of controlling institutions," which Reagan deprecated as the betrayal of classical liberal principles. To this extent, the president was trying to revive the embattled or attenuated branch of liberalism to which the Right owes allegiance.

This conundrum deepens when we consider Diggins's contention that Reagan disagreed with the founders' understanding of mankind's sinfulness and need for authority. The author is on to something here, but presses the case too far. To be sure, Reagan's gravestone includes the un-conservative inscription, "I know in my heart that man is good." Various aspects of his rhetoric lend themselves to the conclusion that he thought evil an abstract thing—that the evil in the "evil empire" stemmed solely from an alien ideology rather than from any corruption in individual human souls. He showed little perception of the sheer will to power that actuates many political men. There is no doubt that he had a sentimental streak about his fellow human beings, along with an overweening confidence in the force of his own personality (a trait he shared with Winston Churchill). Repeatedly in his diaries Reagan expresses surprise and disappointment that an adversary whom Reagan thought he had mollified with a warm White House visit would go right back out and blast him afresh. Elsewhere in his diaries Reagan notes the presence of individual sin, and offers the judgment that for some evildoers, "h--l is too good for them."

Aside from his lack of interest in the problem of sin, Reagan understood contemporary politics in a way much closer to the founders' constitutionalism than Diggins gives him credit for. Almost alone among modern Republican politicians, he understood the unconstitutional dimension of the administrative state. In a 1979 letter Reagan wrote, "The permanent structure of our government with its power to pass regulations has eroded if not in effect repealed portions of our Constitution." In a 1976 radio address he warned, "We are governed more and more by people we never elected, and who can't be turned out of office by our votes and who want more power than they already have." And in his First Inaugural Address in 1981, Reagan indirectly invoked the Declaration of Independence: "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed." How should we explain his failure or inability to halt or reverse the administrative state's growth? This remains a significant historical problem, but it is beyond the scope of Diggins's work, which is concerned with placing the president in the context of American political culture.

Becoming Reagan

Diggins's view of an Emersonian figure clashes to some extent with a new book that attempts to explain how Reagan came to be Reagan: Thomas W. Evans's The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism. A lawyer and former adjunct professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, Evans is undoubtedly correct to home in on the G.E. years as the key period in Reagan's political self-education, which the president himself suggested amounted to a postgraduate education in the subject. He traveled to more than 30 states visiting G.E. plants and making sometimes three or four speeches a day. Traveling by train because of his fear of flying, Reagan read widely in the new conservative periodicals and books, such as the Freeman, National Review, and Whittaker Chambers's Witness.

Evans's book is strange in one glaring respect: while the subject is Reagan's education, his chief focus is the G.E. public affairs operative who hired and squired Reagan, Lemuel Boulware. Boulware is legendary for being one of the first senior executives in corporate America to understand that liberalism's increasing politicization of American life required business firms to become politically "proactive," as we'd say today. He was the rare business executive with real political talent, and he became "a hero of American business" for heading off strikes at every G.E. plant under his watch. Today Washington is crawling with corporate public affairs officers utilizing all the latest media and marketing tools to influence politics. But G.E.'s public affairs strategy and political viewpoint were so novel at the time that they acquired their own label: "Boulwarism."

Among other insights, Boulware realized that corporate political activity needed to take place between elections—not just during election season. This meant educating G.E.'s own employees and the communities where they lived. This is where Reagan came in; he became the star asset in the new communications effort. Boulware, Evans argues, was Reagan's "tutor, sponsor, motivator, and role model," and "Reagan's change in philosophy developed over the entire eight years that he was in [G.E.'s] Employee and Community Relations program." But Boulware's direct influence remains a matter of inference in Evans's narrative; there is little or no mention of Reagan in the corporate documents he references. (Edmund Morris reported the same dry hole in the G.E. archives.)

Although it is correct that this was the key period when Reagan developed his views and began retail political activity, Evans overstates the case that Boulware and Reagan's G.E. years were responsible for moving him from left to right. The Hollywood years in the late 1940s, when Reagan witnessed firsthand the efforts of Communists to infiltrate Hollywood unions, were probably as important to his evolution as the G.E. years. Reagan himself put the genesis of his changing views even earlier, writing in Where's the Rest of Me? (1965) that "the first crack in [his] staunch liberalism" occurred during his military service in World War II, when he observed the perverse incentive structure of the civil service bureaucracy.

Reagan always discounted the frequent charge that he was the creature or puppet of someone else. He explained how Reagan became Reagan in 1976:

Eventually what happened to me was, because I did my own speeches and did the research for them, I just woke up to the realization one day that I had been going out and helping to elect the people who had been causing the things I had been criticizing. So it wasn't any case of some mentor coming in and talking me out of it. I did it in my own speeches.

This explanation may deserve a discount—what presidential candidate will want to admit that his views derive from someone else's?—but it is unlikely that he adopted his political outlook because of the influence of Boulware or G.E. Put simply, Reaganism was not Boulwarism.

In Real Time

Readers hoping to find major new clues to Reagan's peculiar conservatism and character will not receive much help from The Reagan Diaries, but careful readers will be able to cross-reference diary entries with other known facts to discover the shrewd and hard-working man that lurked beneath the genial exterior. With the appearance of the diaries, the old charge that Reagan was "lazy and uninformed" will go out the window for good. What's more, there is no indication of a slowdown in either the president's workload or his attentiveness during his second term—in other words, no evidence of the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. The diaries also reveal that he possessed the normal amount of vanity for a high-level politician—a trait he successfully concealed with his self-effacing public manner.

No one expected Reagan to be introspective or philosophical in his diary, and it is likely that he knew his diaries would someday become public, which is why he elided his mild cursing ("d--n" and "h--l") and was circumspect in other ways. (There is also the mystery why Nancy Reagan gave her blessing for Douglas Brinkley as editor. In his book on Jimmy Carter's post-presidential career ten years ago, Brinkley recycled every anti-Reagan slur and cliché in the liberal inventory. Once Reagan's reputation began to rise, however, Brinkley jumped on the bandwagon with a book extolling the president's 1984 Pointe du Hoc speech in Normandy.)

The diary does confirm several aspects of Reagan's statecraft that have hitherto remained a matter of inference or second-hand testimony. He wrestled with the problem of liberal Republicans who didn't support his program. Concerning Appropriations Committee chairman Senator Mark Hatfield (OR), he wrote: "With some of our friends we don't need enemies." And Reagan called Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker "a pompous, no good, fathead." But he also expressed frustration with conservatives who were nervous about the deficit or too eager to give in to tax increases. More than once he wrote of his disappointment with congressional Republicans: "We had rabbits when we needed tigers." He frequently noted attempts by his senior staff to maneuver him into supporting tax increases, which he usually rebuffed until the last minute when he got a budget deal he could accept. Showing the canny negotiating skills he acquired as a union leader in Hollywood, Reagan noted his advice to Hill Republicans not to open budget talks with their bottom line on spending targets, because Democrats would take that position merely as a starting point; always ask for much more than you are willing to settle for. One of the more significant stories the diary confirms is his persistent battle with Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker over the money supply. Reagan and his economic team wanted higher monetary growth to ease the transformation of the economy following his income tax cuts. Volcker, fearing the return of inflation, resisted. There are repeated entries throughout 1983 and 1984 when Reagan meets with, calls, or has his team lean on Volcker not to kill the recovery with tight money.

Reagan hated Mondays, and usually felt better when Congress was out of session: "It's wonderful with Congress away" (August 28, 1984). He held the news media in near total contempt. Of the TV networks (and their anchormen), Reagan wrote in 1984: "I cannot conjure up 1 iota of respect for just about all of them."

The most illuminating entries concern his Cold War statecraft. Over the years it became fashionable to claim that Reagan had made the transition from Cold War hawk to détentist dove in the middle of his presidency, culminating in the summits and arms agreements of his second term. The diary shows that from the very beginning Reagan sought a diplomatic breakthrough, and sensed that it was possible only through a deliberate mixture of toughness and outreach. The diary as a whole provides the first opportunity to see Reagan calibrate his approach to the Soviets in real time. Though at times he appeared impatient to make progress, the entries testify above all to his steady consistency, in terms that recall Churchill's famous description in his essay "Consistency in Politics"—"lean[ing] all his weight now on one side and now on the other.... The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose." In one revealing entry from early 1982, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had just met with Leonid Brezhnev, tells Reagan that Brezhnev truly fears war. "Maybe our disarmament talks might work after all," the president wrote, tacitly embracing the idea that Soviet fear of the U.S. was a good thing. (There are also several entries in which Reagan relishes Fidel Castro's reported anxiety that the U.S. might move against him, though these rumors were probably disinformation.) But elsewhere Reagan noted that he knew arms talks wouldn't get anywhere until NATO deployed the Pershing and cruise missiles in late 1983.

The frequent clashes between the National Security Council and the State Department represented Reagan's two sides perfectly—and he liked it that way. Just weeks after the famous "evil empire" speech, he wrote: "Some of the N.S.C. staff are too hard line & don't think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I'm hard line & will never appease but I do want to try & let them see there is a better world if they'll show by deed they want to get along with the free world." In 1985, midway between the evil empire speech and the "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin, Reagan recorded that the NSC wanted an upcoming U.N. speech "more harsh toward the Soviets than I think it should be. I won." But on the other hand, we know that both State and the NSC wanted to water down the president's Berlin Wall speech in 1987 and remove the famous "tear down this wall" line. Reagan won that battle, too.

Grand Strategy

Two further additions to the literature of Reagan's Cold War statesmanship come from Paul Kengor, a Grove City College political science professor, whose painstaking research in both Soviet documents and the Reagan Library is unequalled. The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism picks up and extends the story Peter Schweizer outlined in Reagan's War (2002; see "Reagan's Triumph," CRB, Winter 2002). Liberals deride Kengor, Schweizer, and other pro-Reagan writers as composing the "Reagan Victory School," which, the critics argue, overstates the deliberateness of Reagan's strategy and its role in unraveling the Soviet Union. Sometimes this criticism arises out of genuine care to make sense of the cacophony of historical voices, sources, and crosscurrents. More often it is the backhanded way liberals diminish Reagan and change the subject from their own embarrassment at having been proved wrong about the Cold War.

Here and there in Crusader Kengor appears vulnerable to the criticism that his admiration for Reagan causes him to overreach. But in a fashion much more scrupulous than Reagan's many critics, the author includes in each case the contrary evidence and testimony of contemporaries so that the reader can form his own balanced judgment. In one startling instance, Kengor thinks it possible Reagan contemplated military action against the Soviet Union following the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981. Reagan was by all accounts furious at the course of events in Poland and wanted to do something serious in response. But Kengor immediately adduces the evidence against the idea of Reagan contemplating force, noting as a decisive fact his extreme caution throughout his presidency in using military force.

Kengor shows similar fealty to the evidence on both sides of the question when he considers how deliberate was Reagan's strategy to bring down the Soviet Union. In the years since he left office, much has been made of Reagan's remark to Richard Allen in the late 1970s that his theory of the Cold War was that "we win—they lose." Reagan's clear break with his predecessors' approach made it plausible to attribute to him a grand strategy designed to bring down the Soviet Union. Kengor is inclined to agree with this view—hence the title Crusader—but he is careful to present the testimony of key Reagan aides who say it was not quite so simple and direct.

Several aspects of the story seem unassailable. Based on his view that Soviet Communism was against human nature and therefore doomed to fail in the fullness of time, Reagan decided that he could press hard against the other side's weaknesses. A string of National Security Decision Directives (especially NSDD 75) outlined his intent to roll back the Soviet empire and even change the Soviet Union itself. A few insiders—Kengor's book mentions economists Henry Rowen, Norman Bailey, and the CIA's Herbert Meyer—perceived the Soviet's vulnerability and voiced the outlandlish opinion that the West was positioned to win the Cold War, perhaps relatively soon. But few on the Reagan foreign policy team were conscious of an intent to bring down the Soviet Union in the near term; certainly, such a goal was not openly discussed around the White House. Reagan himself seemed surprised when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It seems reasonable to suppose that he thought himself to be following the example of Lincoln's policy regarding slavery—taking firm but moderate steps to place the evil, in this case Communism, in the course of ultimate, though probably not immediate, extinction.

Along the way Kengor casts new light on the role of Senator Ted Kennedy. At the time of the Gipper's death in 2004, Kennedy was surprisingly full-throated in his praise of Reagan as the leader who won the Cold War; and some of the recent books from liberal writers (especially Reeves) dwell on some of Kennedy's back-channel contacts with the Kremlin that the White House had found helpful. Kengor's examination suggests that this could be a cover-up of more sinister acts. Crusader directs our attention to a KGB document first unearthed by the London Times in the 1990s that suggests Kennedy had sought a meeting with Yuri Andropov in 1983 to discuss how to "counter the militaristic policies of Reagan." In one approach Kennedy proposed organizing interviews with Andropov for broadcast on American television. Once again, Kengor is careful to stipulate the memo's possible inaccuracy and to offer other charitable interpretations of the senator's actions and intent. Regardless of the construction put on the Kennedy mission, Kengor is right to argue that "it constitutes a remarkable example of the lengths to which some on the political left, including a sitting U.S. senator, were willing to go to stop Ronald Reagan."

Another of the book's themes that will give liberals heartburn is its argument that Reagan deserves credit for the rise of Gorbachev. Liberals like to give Gorbachev as much honor as possible for the end of the Cold War; he was Time magazine's Man of the Decade for the 1980s. Gorbachev deserves his due, though a full accounting of his reformist impulses would place him closer to Inspector Clouseau than Machiavelli. During the middle of the 1980s a frequent complaint was that Reagan's confrontational attitude would strengthen the Kremlin "hardliners" and make it impossible for a reformer such as Gorbachev to emerge. On this point Kengor offers compelling evidence that the White House perceived that their confrontational stance would, to the contrary, likely prompt the Soviets' change. In January 1984 Reagan's recently departed national security advisor, William Clark, wrote him to say that he thought administration policy would "very likely influence the rise of a less dangerous Soviet leader than the dying Andropov."

Reagan's Confidante

Kengor's most substantial contribution to the Reagan literature is his new biography of Clark, The Judge, William P. Clark: Ronald Reagan's Top Hand, co-authored with Clark's cousin, Patricia Clark Doerner. Known as "The Judge" from his tenure on the California Supreme Court (to which Reagan had appointed him), Clark is the only senior member of the president's inner circle who never wrote a memoir of his time with Reagan. A complete treatment of the judge is long overdue; he was the most important and influential presidential confidante since Harry Hopkins.

Clark was a true Cincinnatus, entering public service reluctantly and without personal ambition, and longing always to return to the plough. As they did Reagan, the media and his opponents consistently underestimated and ridiculed him, though he was supremely able. In some respects Clark could be considered Ronald Reagan without the Hollywood personality, and indeed the judge stands out as the one person with whom the president was personally close—the exception to Reagan's well-known personal distance. (Clark is the person who originated the famous slogan, "let Reagan be Reagan.")

With access to Clark's private papers and other previously restricted sources, Kengor and Doerner detail for the first time many of Clark's exploits, especially his crucial role as national security advisor in 1982 and 1983, when Reagan's Soviet strategy took definite shape. His role in the president's March 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative was decisive. Virtually everyone in the upper reaches of the administration was against the speech, except for Clark. It is hard to imagine Reagan going through with it without the judge's back-up. Clark was the best of Reagan's six national security advisors—the authors argue he was one of the best for any president ever—and when he stepped down it was mostly because he thought the tensions between him and the State Department were hurting his boss. Few public servants are so self-effacing.

Clark was Reagan's go-to person for discrete missions to foreign leaders, which continued even after he formally left the administration in 1985. Kengor and Doerner provide inside accounts of Clark's private meetings with François Mitterrand, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, the leaders of China, and Saddam Hussein. There is also the first complete account of his successful 1983 mission to South America to prevent Suriname from becoming another Nicaragua. And The Judge provides a useful account of Clark's extensive efforts to blunt the nuclear freeze movement and the pacifism of the Catholic bishops. The Crusader and The Judge deserve to take their place among essential studies of Reagan. With these works, the literature on Reagan's foreign policy is more or less complete—until additional classified documents are released or new Soviet sources are revealed.

Domestic Transformation

By contrast, the story of Reagan's domestic policy remains clouded and obscure, in part because we are still wrestling with many of the same issues today—tax cuts, trade and budget deficits, globalization, affirmative action, and the rest of the culture war. The domestic story is harder to tell because it is less amenable to the direct personal and moral dimensions of the Cold War and because of the wider range of complicated issues. Robert M. Collins's Transforming America is a masterly synoptic account of the Reagan years (including two chapters on the Cold War that track closely with the other books under review here) that is especially good on domestic issues. Its coverage of the Reagan Revolution's domestic side is the best since John Ehrman's The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (2005) and Richard B. McKenzie's What Went Right in the 1980s (1993).

A professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Collins is the rare historian who is literate in economics and public policy. He combines this knowledge with a writing style that is direct and understated. Indeed, it is hard to tell from his scrupulous prose what his own ideological leanings may be. Although he does not shrink from criticizing Reagan or his record, Collins confidently dispatches many of the well-entrenched criticisms of the Gipper that most historians roll over for, and in a way that does not read like a pro-Reagan brief. While he doesn't delve deeply into the president's character, he easily concludes that "Reagan was not stupid, lazy, or passive to the point of disengagement." "[O]n the large matters where it counted most..." says Collins, "Reagan was firmly in charge."

The author thinks that both the claims in favor of and against supply-side economics were "overwrought," but understands that supply-side's decisive effect was making the Republican Party the party of growth. He dismisses the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's view that Reagan's huge budget deficits were deliberate, while acknowledging that the deficit did have a "shattering impact on the sort of federal activism strongly identified with Democratic liberalism.... After all, deficits served a useful purpose: They keep liberals from voting on big new spending programs."

Collins is even better on some of the issues that remain hot buttons today, such as income inequality, globalization, corporate restructuring and changes in corporate finance, and the savings and loan crisis (which is enjoying something of a reprise lately in the form of the collapse of sub-prime lending). "[A] fair-minded autopsy finds that the S&L collapse of the 1980s defies both easy analysis and glib moralizing," he writes. The Reagan Administration did not cause the problem, though he thinks the administration could have monitored it better. While many commentators have fixed upon the Wall Street scandals of the 1980s (many of which were prosecuted by then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani), Collins notes that "it is a fundamental error to mistake a part of the story—the reality of scandal and misfeasance—for the larger whole." He sides with economic historians who conclude that the '80s resulted in "the most formidable transformation" in the history of U.S. business, and set the stage for the high-tech developments and prosperity of the 1990s that continue today.

Similarly, Collins has closely reasoned views of income inequality ("There are, however, serious problems with the chiefly political explanation for America's rising inequality"), the unfolding of the AIDS epidemic, and homelessness, for which media coverage was so negligent that it could be considered "reportage from another planet." His surveys of the rise of postmodernism and other aspects of the culture wars are balanced and thorough, though his judgments lack some of the sure-footedness of his chapters on economics and policy, partly for the understandable reason that these "matters of the heart" are less susceptible to quantitative analysis.

Perhaps the most suggestive aspect of Transforming America is the way in which Collins connects the Reagan years with our current political scene. Bill Clinton, he thinks, was the perfect reflection of the two sides of the 1980s—more conservative on economic and social policy (especially welfare reform), and more liberal on the cultural front. The author recalls with great effectiveness Clinton's manipulation of the therapeutic victim culture that took shape in the '80s, which development showed the limitations of Reagan's transformative effect on public life.

Indeed, the combination of a rightward political shift and a leftward cultural tilt helps mightily to explain the increasingly shrill tenor and brittle nature of American public life at the dawn of the new century.... [I]n the aftermath of the Long Eighties the right felt frustrated by the fact that it had triumphed politically but continued to lose ground in the cultural struggles of the day, while the left was similarly disappointed at its inability to translate its cultural influence into political victory."

Though this is correct as far as it goes, it leads to deeper questions about the reciprocal influence of politics and culture that lie beyond the scope of Collins's sober book. For all of his victories (and defeats), the transformation of America under Ronald Reagan was inconclusive, incomplete. The arguments about Reagan persist, because they are proxies for the political arguments of today.


Steven F. Hayward is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines Democracy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry.


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