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Book Review: The Reagan Era

By (February 25, 2015) 2 Comments

The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980sthe reagan era cover

by Doug Rossinow

Columbia University Press, 2015

Doug Rossinow’s new book The Reagan Era is subtitled “A History of the 1980s,” but its text runs to less than 300 pages, and as if that didn’t set off enough warning-bells, there’s also the fact that the U.S edition’s cover features an extreme close-up of President Reagan in the act of calling on a reporter at a press conference, looking stern and attentive. Readers approaching the book from a relatively neutral political corner might have grounds for worry, and Rossinow’s opening characterization of the particular brand of Republican conservatism Reagan espoused in the decade of Rossinow’s concentration doesn’t exactly soothe those worries:

In the 1980s, conservatives succeeded in remaking large parts of American life. They reshaped American politics, working an alchemy that transmuted conservative dogma – on the wisdom of low income taxes, the special virtue of entrepreneurs, the parasitic character of government, the need for overwhelming (rather than merely great) military strength, the dependence of social health on proper values, and the nuclear family as the building block of society – into common sense.

As potential deal-breaker paragraphs go, this one is a heavyweight. Most of its contentions aren’t true, and even the ones that are true are skewed in such a way as to feel even more false than an outright lie would feel. Right-leaning partisan readers will recognize the tint of the rhetoric as basically that of Reagan/Bush election campaign platform. Left-leaning partisan readers will hasten to point out that there was nothing – literally nothing – common-sensical about Reagan’s eight years in office. Even non-partisan readers will wonder what boilerplate like that is doing in something purporting to be the history of a decade.

Part of this is cleared up by correcting the inaccuracy of the sub-title. The Reagan Era is in no way a history of the 1980s. It seldom ventures outside the White House, scarcely ever ventures outside the Beltway, and never ventures into – nor shows much interest in – the larger world. No, rather it is exactly what its main title says it is: a history of the Reagan administration. It’s a year-by-year expanded precis of the triumphs and catastrophes of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, bracketed at one end by whirlwind campaigns and at the other end by the caretaker presidency of George H. W. Bush.

It can be fairly straightforward with Reagan apparatchiks – nefarious creatures like William Casey and John Poindexter, for instance, get some rough handling when Rossinow is relating the Iran-Contra committee hearings – but when dealing with Reagan himself, at least in the book’s early stages, the tone can be fastidious. When Rossinow relates the damningly succinct verdict South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed on the president (“a racist pure and simple”), for example, he’s quick to add a defusing line: “Reagan’s champions have always sharply repelled such charges, arguing that Reagan was personally free from prejudice.”

Rossinow himself is clearly not one of those champions, although his book is at its most protean exactly when attempting to grapple with its central subject. “But for all of Reagan’s achievements,” he writers, “he was not, despite his admirers’ seemingly limitless praise, a great man. He scorned far greater men, like King and Mandela, who knew real danger as they led their peoples’ struggles against lethal tyrannies … [he] was not a stupid man, but he sometimes took refuge in stupid lies.” Harsh assessments like these are scattered throughout The Reagan Era, abutting unembarrassed with equally frank assessments of the moments when his subject rose to the occasion – even when the occasion was tragic:

On January 28, 1986, as millions watched on television, the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after liftoff, killing all seven crew members. President Reagan canceled his State of the Union address and, instead, gave a speech soon afterward from the Oval Office eulogizing the dead astronauts in lyrical fashion, quoting the poet John Magee, Jr. in saying that the crew had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God.” Reagan’s words comforted a shocked nation. This was Reagan near the acme of his reign as America’s ceremonial head of state, a height he reached even as his grip on government faltered.

The end result can often be as contradictory and bracing as was the 1980s American political landscape itself. Rossinow grounds everything in a vast amount of research (the book’s long section of end notes is not to be missed – a great deal of fascinating conversation about issues happens there), but there are many points in his book where compression proves the better part of valor. Students of the period and newcomers alike will wish Rossinow’s publishers had given him 600 more pages – a recommendation of a kind, but also a caution.