The Book Club

Have Reagan’s Successors Misunderstood Him?

Dear Sean,

Congratulations on your excellent new political history of our times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who first made his name with The Age of Jackson, would appreciate the homage implied in your title. And I suspect he might also agree—and I certainly do—that, like it or not, Reagan was the transcendent figure of fin-de-siecle politics in America.

Your first two chapters do a great job laying out the crisis of the old order. In the 1970s the entire American political establishment, which traditionally hewed to the pragmatic center, faced a series of challenges it could not handle. Establishment liberals and small “c” conservatives alike were left, as you say, “philosophically at loose ends.”

While noting the lingering effects of Watergate and Vietnam, you point out that Americans had other reasons to question the basic competence of the political establishment. Stagflation confounded the conventional wisdom. Meanwhile, violent crime was on the rise. When Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter six years later, the economic situation was, if anything, worse, and the crime statistics not much better. You don’t write this, but I sense you would agree that it was this striking bipartisan leadership failure that made it impossible for successful politicians to lead from the center for a generation.

And so, enter Ronald Reagan, stage right. Although he was mouthing the same nostrums that conservatives had been offering when crime, unemployment, and inflation rates were low in the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1970s, Americans were eager to give this outsider and his followers a chance. Having stressed that he successfully put a smiling, optimistic face on American conservatism, you are also careful to make clear that his election was as much the result of the collapse of liberal Democrats as because of the power of his message.

Once in office, Reagan produced Reaganism. In a departure from other analyses, you believe Reaganism is both more and less than just the catechism of the new right. “[T]he Reagan years … defy easy definition as ‘conservative’; ‘hawkish,’ or ‘pro-business,’ let alone ‘Republican,’ ” you write. “Reaganism was its own distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology.” It follows, then, that Reagan’s political children, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, did not quite understand the essence of their hero’s governing philosophy.

I agree that the reasons for Reagan’s foreign-policy successes have been distorted by his successors. Drawing upon Doug Brinkley’s superbly edited Reagan Diaries and Lou Cannon’s insightful work, you argue for the essential humanity of the man and his abhorrence of war. Critics on the left who labeled him heartless or a warmonger or an inflexible ideologue didn’t understand Reagan. But the right didn’t get him, either. Reagan’s greatest achievements in foreign policy came when he rejected the approach that he had campaigned on in 1980. Much as Barry Goldwater had criticized the Kennedy-Khrushchev détente, Reagan slammed Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of engaging the Kremlin. Using some of the rich materials released in Russia and here, you convincingly portray a Reagan who recognized the dangers of this confrontational approach in 1983 and shifted gears, even before Mikhail Gorbachev took the reins in Moscow. By 1986, Reagan faced opposition from erstwhile Reaganites and even some Nixonian realists for pushing for nuclear disarmament. The best presidents are often those who can think outside the consensual wisdom when it no longer works. These days we call this kind of leadership “reality-based,” and you quite rightly note how little of this Reaganite foreign-policy pragmatism is in George W. Bush.

But I am not convinced that Reaganism at home reflected as much pragmatism and humanity—or that George W. Bush has departed so radically from his philosophy in domestic policy as you suggest. You quote Reagan’s former adviser Martin Anderson as saying, “I just can’t think of any major policy issue on which Bush was different.” Reagan remained committed to cutting taxes, deregulation, and privatizing welfare despite a burgeoning deficit, a crisis in the savings and loan industry, and a widening gap between rich and poor. At the end of your book, you suggest that the George W. Bush administration has been more single-minded than the Reagan administration in achieving its domestic goals. Yet had Reagan enjoyed the same control of Congress as George W. Bush, would we have seen as much compromise by him on the new right’s platform in the 1980s?

It is one of the ironies of the Age of Reagan that it produced a great economy almost despite Reagan. George H.W. Bush (whom I wrote about in the American Presidents series you’re now editing) and Bill Clinton deserve a lot of credit. But I wish you had included the role of another Bill—Bill Gates. You note that Reagan benefited from the crisis of liberalism. The Age of Reagan also benefited from a revolution in information technology. Computers, fiber optics, and the Web brought productivity gains that were thought impossible for a mature economy like ours. How much of this was the result of the easy money of the go-go years of the 1980s, I leave to others; but the effect of the deficits was to increase real interest rates, which came down only through Bush-Clinton. The basis for the great economy of the 1990s is another history lesson that Reagan’s emulators in the current administration seem not to have learned.

You do not end the Age of Reagan with Sept. 11, which I think makes sense. Instead you include the Bush administration and argue that in his effort to emulate Reagan, George W. Bush may have hastened the end of his hero’s era. As a point of departure for our discussion, does this mean that Bush’s perceived failures have delegitimized Reaganism just as Johnson’s, Nixon’s, Ford’s, and Carter’s undermined what was left of New Dealism? Or is it that the American people were never as conservative as some pundits thought? Instead, they just liked and trusted Reagan.