Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nixonland vs. The Age of Reagan
Having finally broken through (I think, I hope) the jet lag problem, I woke up this morning at an acceptable time and finished one of the books I'd started on my trip, The Age of Reagan by historian Sean Wilentz. In it, Wilentz attempts to trace the political vicissitudes of the last four decades through the prism of Ronald Reagan's political legacy and the forces that contributed to his ascendancy and continuing influence on the political life of the United States. Though flawed (as any work of near-contemporary history must be), it provides an interesting complement and counter-argument to one of my favorite books of last year, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.

An old friend (and, I think, Oxford classmate) of Bill Clinton, Wilentz seemed to me before reading this book the Monica Lewinsky of political historians, equally disposed toward donning the presidential kneepads, and of all Hillary Clinton's high-profile outside supporters in the 2008 campaign, he might have been the most obnoxious towards Barack Obama. Wilentz's screeds in The New Republic during the campaign changed my view of him, which had been sky-high after reading his outstanding The Rise of American Democracy in 2006. He keeps this up in the postscript to "Age of Reagan," referring to Obama's "sketchy past" without evident concern for the many questionable actions and political trimmings of his friend Hillary Clinton. (In the preface to the paperback edition, written after the November election, he's somewhat more complimentary toward Obama; whether this is representative of a sincere change or heart or an act of party loyalty, I wouldn't claim to know.) That said, in the lengthy section of the book devoted to the Clinton administration, he's fairly even-handed toward his friend the former president, praising his political resilience and defending "triangulation" as a concession to political realities rather than abandonment of principles but blasting Clinton's personal immorality (my word, not his) around the Lewinsky affair and at least relating, if not sharing, some criticisms about his political choices and tactics (the secretive health care reform task force led by Hillary, the decision to attempt health care before welfare reform, etc).

In an ironic twist considering his view of Obama, Wilentz strongly implies that he shares the new president's much-discussed opinion, articulated during the campaign, that Reagan was a transformational president in a way that Clinton was not. He argues, correctly, that Reagan was significant both in his policy accomplishments--the successful prosecution of the Cold War, reducing tax burdens, and stopping the momentum of (though not rolling back) the welfare state--and in his tactical moves, such as politicizing the judiciary to (as Ed Meese put it) ensure the durability of his revolution. Clinton essentially fought a series of defensive actions, particularly after his politically disastrous first two years gave the Republicans control of Congress. Any chance of his leaving a more significant legacy than short-term prosperity and setting down some markers in post-Cold War foreign policy (almost all of which were quickly disregarded by his successor) ended with Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 election. As I've written here before, I think Clinton's best legacy is probably his setting out a plausible progressive centrism that was picked up later by Obama among others. But even there, Reagan compares favorably; where Clinton is somewhat warily admired by most (not all) Democrats, Reagan is worshipped by virtually every Republican. Wilentz makes a great point at the end of the book, observing that the vapid argument among the 2008 Republican presidential contenders about who was "Reagan's true heir" was itself a strong clue that the "age of Reagan" was coming to an end.

(Actually, an argument could be made that Clinton set a template for Obama just as Richard Nixon, himself operating toward the end of a liberal age, did for Reagan. But that's probably another subject for another day.)

Rick Perlstein's argument is that we continue to live in "Nixon's America," suggesting that he, not Reagan, is the key political figure of the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This view is actually compatible with Wilentz's view that Reagan dominated the politics of the last 35 years if you view Nixon as the tactician and Reagan as the visionary. Nixon's political practices and notions of power--specifically, the demonization of opponents in an unending campaign, and the utter primacy of the executive branch--proved his lasting legacy to his party and country. But Reagan, vastly the better politician, was the leader--maybe the only Republican leader--who could really implement, and institutionalize, that legacy. (And it took George W. Bush, a lousy imitation of Reagan in almost every way, to destroy it.) Uniquely, he managed to impugn the Democrats without suffering much blowback as a hyper-partisan warrior or even an unpleasant person; and his hands-off management style both enabled sharper-edged partisans in and out of government, like Meese and Lee Atwater while insulating Reagan himself from the uglier side of politics. (It also enabled messes like Iran-Contra, of which Wilentz offers a perceptive analysis.)

Reagan wasn't just the clueless front man for a right-wing cabal; he had clear guiding principles and insisted that his appointees follow them. This was in contrast to Nixon, who was far from a model of consistency in foreign or domestic policy, but was also much more engaged with details. But Reagan also had a capacity for compromise and negotiation that served him well at home and abroad; Bush, among his many other flaws, almost entirely lacked this capacity, with the result that he and/or his appointees and aides took Reagan's supposed ideological bent at face value and then fused it to Nixon's paranoia and viciousness. The results, as Wilentz suggests, really did bring the age of Reagan to an end.


The Navigator said...

I haven't seen this paperback edition intro, but it's troubling, isn't it? Of all people, academics, at least in theory (Marge), ought to be skeptical of absolute truth. It's probably hoping too much to expect pundits who've changed their views, or who've been proven clearly wrong on some issue, to admit their error and to pledge publicly greater humility and less certitude in the future. But academics who value the university's purported truth-seeking mission ought to embrace precisely those values. When you've said stupid things and it's become clear that your comments were extreme and without foundation, you ought to use the occasion to rededicate yourself to empiricism and modesty and humility and the contingency and possible error in your other professional work.

I realize that that's unrealistic and that professors will obviously go on being as unrepentantly dogmatic as the rest of us. But it's got to influence our view of their scholarly work, doesn't it? I mean, it says something about Sean Wilentz that he was a mindless, over-the-top extremist pro-Clintonite, is now willing to say nicer things about a man he raked with buckshot just a year ago, but isn't willing to frankly admit error.

David said...

The intro to the paperback edition is worth checking out (take a few minutes in a bookstore, if nothing else), not just for his sort-of revision on Obama, but his notes about what he'd do differently (more emphasis on the battle over placing missiles in Europe, the ongoing deregulation of finance throughout the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush years that contributed to the 2008 meltdown, etc) if he were starting the book today. I found this interesting as an exercise in pretty much what you're talking about--that the present changes our view of the past to a considerable extent, in addition to the obvious vice-versa being true.