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Topic: Ronald Reagan’s Lengthening Shadow

Thursday, November 8, 2001

A poll taken last August by ABC News found that Ronald Reagan is more popular with the American people today than at any time during his presidency (his approval rating is nearly 70 percent), while a recent Gallup Poll found that among 18 to 30 year-olds, Reagan is rated as our nation’s greatest president by a small plurality. To liberals dispirited by these findings I can only say—it serves you right for running down all those dead white males like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln.

But this helps explain why Reagan is getting the silent treatment right now from liberal intellectuals, who manifestly failed in their attempts to do to Reagan what a generation of liberal intellectuals and historians did to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover back in the 1940s and 1950s. Throughout the 1980s there was book after book from liberals savagely attacking Reagan. Right now their big guns are quiet, and liberals are leaving Reagan alone. But make no mistake: their hatred of Reagan remains unabated. In fact, I think that much of the partisan bitterness we have seen in the last few years, which has been subdued a little in the aftermath of September 11, reflects the lasting anger and resentment by liberals at the way Reagan derailed liberalism’s near-monopoly in American politics. During Reagan’s presidency Edward Shils observed that "Liberals would sooner see their society ruined than learn something valuable to its preservation from conservatism."

The Age of Reagan is based on the premise that Franklin Roosevelt was the most consequential president of the first half of the 20th century, and that Ronald Reagan was the most consequential president of the second half of the 20th century, which means that Reagan’s story deserves to be told in terms and in a style commensurate with the story of FDR and the New Deal. Just as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. provided a broad canvas of the coming of the New Deal era in his multi-volume work, The Age of Roosevelt, so too, I said to myself, someone should provide the same broad-gauge view of Reagan and his place in our political life.

I believe it is possible summarize the argument and action of my 800-page book in two sentences: This book explains why Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, rather than merely how. Reagan was the right man for the moment, but the coming of that moment needs to be explained. I may be mistaken about this, but I think that although Reagan had been thinking and speaking seriously about political questions since at least the late 1940s, he might not have been an especially successful or compelling politician had he embarked on a political career in the 1940s or 1950s (when, ironically, the Democratic Party had been asking him to run for Congress from Los Angeles). But by 1980, Reagan’s particular insights and skills were ideally suited to the attenuated condition the country had reached in the aftermath of the collapse of the moderate liberal consensus that had dominated American public life throughout the postwar era.

This is not a thought original to me. The Wall Street Journal’s Vermont Royster observed in 1987: "Ronald Reagan, in short, did not create the ’Reagan revolution.’ He rode it to success because its time had come. Had his instinct not been in tune with the times in 1980 he would have lost, as did Barry Goldwater in 1964 when the time had not yet come." Perceptive liberals recognize this as well. Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in their 1991 book Chain Reaction:

[W]hile Reagan’s role was indisputably critical, he was more a principal agent within—rather than the prime mover of—a sea change involving forces substantially more profound and extensive than the fortunes of the two political parties or of their candidates. To see Ronald Reagan as the cause of an ascendant conservatism minimizes the significance and consequence of large-scale social and economic transformations—developments beyond the power of any single political player to determine.

These "large-scale transformations" are the elements of the story this book aims to tell. These are the aspects of any high level political story that are often difficult to capture in straight biography, and which are largely missing from Edmund Morris’s biography.

And so the narrative of the book proceeds along two tracks. While recounting the political odyssey of Reagan that starts in 1964 with his famous speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, the book also contains a general chronicle of the main political events of the country, always taking pains to relate Reagan’s place in these events, or to set up how these events affected Reagan’s subsequent ascent.

The narrative comes in three distinct parts. The first section of the book assays the crackup of liberalism amidst the failures of the twin wars—the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam—the failure of both, I argue, can be traced to a common intellectual root, and should not be viewed, as they have been in most conventional histories up to this point, as separate and distinct phenomena. It is astounding to go back carefully through the historical record of the time and see serious, intelligent people declaring that poverty would be completely eliminated in America within a decade. As Pat Moynihan tried to point out at the time, liberals didn’t really know that much about poverty, or especially about the cultural factors that perpetuate it.

A close examination of the new liberalism that arose in the mid-1960s brings to light how it differed from the older liberalism of the New Deal. The New Deal was in many ways a large civil engineering project, while the new liberalism of the Great Society was a huge social engineering project. Why should social science be anymore difficult than rocket science? Those of you who were around at the time may recall a popular cliché: "Any country that can land a man on the moon can solve [fill in the blank] problem."

The older liberalism was optimistic, confident, and forward-looking. Above all it was realistic: think of the hard-headed liberalism of Lionel Trilling or Dwight Macdonald or Leslie Fielder or George Orwell—leading liberal intellectuals of their day who are nearly forgotten today. Today’s liberalism often seems pessimistic, excessively sentimental, and even reactionary—witness the refusal of most liberals to consider even the tiniest trial of school choice, or even to discuss meaningful reform of Social Security or Medicare. Large generalizations are always hazardous to make, but consider: the Kennedy years offered us the political economy of "growth liberalism," as it was called. Within a decade, however, liberalism came to embrace the idea of the "limits to growth." It was a stunning about-face, with disastrous effects on liberalism, that lingers on to this day. Indeed, it can even be argued that had not Vice President Gore so fully associated himself with the "limits to growth" outlook in his book Earth in the Balance, he would likely be President today, because he would not have lost the state of West Virginia. Even Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis carried West Virginia; it is very difficult for a Democrat to lose West Virginia, but Al Gore found the one way to do it.

Or consider John F. Kennedy’s great and enthusiastic challenge in 1961 to go to the moon before the decade was out. When we indeed reached the moon in 1969, as I relate in the book, many prominent liberals remarked that while the moon landing was impressive, we would have been better off spending the money to "fix the cities" and for social programs on Earth. (The total cost of the moon landing, by the way, was equal to about three months worth of social spending in 1969.) Pat Moynihan confirmed this intellectual decay when he acknowledged in 1973 that "Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade."

The second section focuses on the Nixon years, which are important because conservatives and many middle-of-the-road Americans held out great hope that Nixon would provide a bulwark against, or agent for the reversal of, the excesses of 1960s liberalism. Despite his intentions to be exactly this, the immensely talented Nixon has to be judged to have been a great disappointment if not a failure, though not because of the catastrophe of Watergate. Government spending and economic regulation grew faster under Nixon than under Johnson; indeed, some of the most problematic advances of the administrative state occurred under Nixon, by Nixon’s initiative. In addition to assaying these problems, the book examines the complicated relationship between Nixon and Reagan, and the striking contrast between how each man confronted the same issues of the time. The lesson of Nixon’s failure, which might be called a tragic failure for reasons both obvious and more subtle, is that it was going to require someone of more intransigent political character to work a change in America’s political direction.

The third section of the book, comprising the final six chapters, is called "The Coming of Ronald Reagan," and examines the attenuation of Détente under both Presidents Ford and Carter, the near-miss of Reagan’s 1976 campaign, and how Reagan redoubled his efforts to prepare to run again in 1980. Perhaps the most revealing or interesting thing I learned in the process of researching and writing the book is the extent to which Reagan was preparing seriously to be president during the years between 1976 and 1980—probably more seriously and intently than any presidential candidate of modern times.

And so by the time we reach 1980, we find the man and his moment meeting. It is very difficult today, in the midst our national confidence and prosperity, to recall how dismal was the nation’s outlook in the years immediately preceding Reagan’s election. Time magazine’s Henry Luce had famously declared in 1940 that the 20th century was "the American century." By 1980, much of the elite believed that the American century was over. "The whole country seemed slightly traumatized on the brink of the ’80s," Newsweek magazine said. "[T]here was also a growing sense that the country’s institutions and leaders were no longer up to managing the problems that were simply too complex to grasp." Time magazine thought the same: "From the Arab oil boycott in 1973 onward," Time essayist Lance Morrow wrote in January 1980, "the decade was bathed in a cold Spenglerian apprehension that the lights were about to go out, that history’s astonishing material indulgence of the U.S. was about to end." The number of Americans who told the Gallup poll that the country was on the wrong track hit a new peak of 84 percent in August 1979; 67 percent agreed with the statement that the U.S. was in "deep and serious trouble." All of this pessimism reached a climax in the summer of 1979, when President Carter delivered the worst presidential speech ever made to the American people, the so-called "malaise" speech. Carter had run for president in 1976 promising "a government as good as the people." Now, in 1979, he said that the people were no good.

The only prominent American who rejected this pessimism wholesale was Ronald Reagan, and it is why he was the only man for the moment. Although the economy and foreign affairs were the main front-burner issues in the extraordinary campaign of 1980, the subtext of the entire campaign was the problem of American decline.

I think this is extremely important for its contemporary legacy. I finished writing this book in the first week in June, and it began arriving in bookstores on Monday, September 10. So much for timing. Lots of people have been asking me how Reagan would have responded at the present moment, and whether anything in my book or the legacy of Reagan bears on the case at hand.

I think there is. In the first instance, although we can never know for certain how historical contingencies would play themselves out if one or two large things had been changed in the past, it is a worthwhile thought experiment to ponder whether Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole, would have taken as difficult a course as it has over the past 20 years if the Shah or his pro-western successors had held on to rule that country. It is doubtful, I think. It would go too far to say that this is the last fruit of Jimmy Carter’s inept foreign policy, but it is to suggest the far-reaching effects when things go badly wrong.

That is in the realm of speculation. There is a second aspect to the story that parts of my book do bear on, even though indirectly. It concerns how Americans have reacted in the aftermath of September 11, and how different has been the mood after this than after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. Although that crisis was of lesser magnitude, it was in some ways a greater insult, because it was not a single outrage committed on one day, but a lingering outrage that festered week by week. But in that crisis, the nation’s sense of powerlessness and pessimism dominated public consciousness; there was a brief surge of patriotism, but no spontaneous outburst of flag displays. Our alternative symbol was the yellow ribbon, after a song infinitely less sustaining that God Bless America. There wasn’t much we thought we could do, and above all we feared the death of the hostages, and American troops, if we did try to take forceful actions. And yet it was the uncertainty about what Reagan might do that helped to unfreeze the crisis. Immediately after the election in 1980, a joke began to circulate widely: What’s flat as a pancake and glows in the dark? Iran after Reagan becomes President. The unpredictability of the "cowboy" Reagan surely entered into the calculations of Iran in deciding to resolve the crisis before Reagan took office in 1981.

Today the national mood is palpably different than it was in 1980.

Our more robust mood at the moment goes deeper, I think, than just the difference in circumstances that might be pointed out. All of this occurs amidst the context of the increasing interest in and celebration of what we call "the greatest generation," and especially among baby boomers, there is a sense that even if we do not have to take up arms by the millions as our fathers and grandfathers did, still we may be able to share in the resolve and seriousness of purpose that is worthy of the greatest generation.

This might seem unremarkable, until you pause long enough to recall that in the 1960s, the baby boom generation was asserting that IT was the greatest generation, and much of the adult establishment rushed to affirm this grandiose pretension. This was at the heart of the much-celebrated "generation gap" of the time, which was the first cousin, or maybe the bastard twin, of the "credibility gap." In 1966 Time magazine selected the "under 25 generation" as its "Man of the Year" instead of a single individual. "This is not just a new generation," Time wrote, "but a new kind of generation. With his skeptical yet humanistic outlook, his disdain for fanaticism and his scorn for the spurious, the Man of the Year suggests that he will infuse the future with a new sense of morality, a transcendent and contemporary ethic that could infinitely enrich the ’empty society.’"

This was absurd, of course, but it was only the beginning. The Cox commission that was formed after the sacking of Columbia University in 1968 concluded that "The present generation of young people in our universities is the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known . . . Today’s undergraduate and graduate students exhibit, as a group, a higher level of social consciousness than preceding generations."

They are trying to tell us something, the elites kept saying. All you needed to do was read the signs and banners the students put on display at Columbia to realize that what they were telling us is that they were moral imbeciles.

Even the Nixon administration unwittingly contributed to this genre of affirming the moral superiority of the younger generation. After the eruption of the campuses after Cambodia in 1970, Nixon appointed his own commission to investigate and report on campus unrest, headed by former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton. The Scranton report was just as risible as the Cox report three years before, finding that the "counterculture" was the repository of "high ideals," whose members "stress the need for humanity, equality, and the sacredness of life." The student protesters represented a "new culture," rebelling against their "elders entrapped by materialism and competition . . . prisoners of outdated social forms."

Then there was Woodstock, where adult elites once again rushed to confer transcendent meeting out of an overgrown music festival. The New York Times thought Woodstock was "essentially a phenomenon of innocence," while Time magazine chirped that Woodstock "may well rank as one of the significant political and sociological events of the age. . . [T]he revolution it preaches, implicitly or explicitly, is essentially moral; it is the proclamation of a new set of values. . . With a surprising ease and a cool sense of authority, the children of plenty have voiced an intention to live by a different ethical standard than their parents accepted. The pleasure principle has been elevated over the Puritan ethic of work. To do one’s own thing is a greater duty than to be a useful citizen. Personal freedom in the midst of squalor is more liberating than social conformity with the trappings of wealth. Now that youth takes abundance for granted, it can afford to reject materialism."

The one person who spoke out forcefully against this tide of approbation of youth culture was, of course, Ronald Reagan. He did this with his usual mixture of humor and toughness. In his standard after-dinner speech during the campaign of 1970, he liked to joke: "I had a nightmare last night. I dreamed I owned a Laundromat in Berkeley."

But Reagan also knew all along which was the greatest generation. In testimony to the House Education and Labor Committee in 1969, Reagan argued "The leaders of today’s so-called establishment did not have to listen in a classroom lecture or make a field trip to the ghetto to learn about poverty. We lived it in the depths of the Great Depression. The horrors of war are not just a subject for a term paper to a generation that sent it finest young men to fight at Omaha Beach. . ."

If there was a "generation gap," it was entirely the fault of the younger generation. To the contrary of both Nixon and the New Left, Reagan asserted:

"We have been picked at, sworn at, rioted against and downgraded until we have a built-in guilt complex, and this has been compounded by the accusations of our sons and daughters who pride themselves on ’telling it like it is.’ Well, I have news for them—in a thousand social science courses they have been informed ’the way it is not’ . . . As for our generation I will make no apology. No people in all history paid a higher price for freedom. And no people have done so much to advance the dignity of man."

In other words, as in so many other issues, Reagan was 20 years ahead of Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose, and once again the country is catching up to Ronald Reagan. Had Walter Cronkite, for example, published "the greatest generation" in 1970, it would have been greeted with howls of derision. And if you think overstate this case, take a closer look at what might at first appear to be the strongest counter-example from the time: the Oscar-winning move Patton, which could be said to champion one of the leading figures of the Greatest Generation. In fact, the producers of Patton considered calling the film Patton: Portrait of a Rebel to appeal to the youth market and anti-establishment mood of the time, and he was clearly intended in the film to be understood as a nonconformist, a revel against the unimaginative conformism of his peers.

What I think has happened in the last decade or more is that the baby boomers who were caught up in the pretensions of youth culture in the 1960s and 1970s have come to recognize, in the more mature reflections of middle age, and as their parents begin to die off, the emptiness of their youthful pretensions, and also the quiet dignity and grandeur of their parents generation, and hence, this effusiveness we see today for the greatest generation. This helps explain, I think, the depth of feeling in this country in the aftermath of September 11, and why it differs so markedly from the public mood of the Iranian hostage crisis.

As mentioned at the outset, Ronald Reagan is more popular with Americans today than at any time during his presidency. This means that the story of Reagan’s legacy is still unfolding, and is still unfinished. But while that story not yet finished, for the moment, I am finished.


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