Gil Troy Interviews Gil Troy About His New Book on Ronald Reagan

Mr. Troy is the author of Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons. His latest book is Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a Professor of History at McGill University and a member of HNN's advisory board.

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Why is it so important for us to understand Reagan's presidency and the 1980s during this moment in time?

Anyone who woke up on November 3 and claimed to be surprised that America has shifted right - or that culture is an important political hot potato in America - has not been paying attention for the last quarter of a century. We live in a Reaganized America. In order to understand the America that has emerged since 1980, we need to understand the man and the moment who continue to define our lives in so many ways: Ronald Reagan and the 1980s.

Does the Ronald Reagan you found in your research seem different from the one most of us remember?

I often joke that writing about Reagan is not for the faint-hearted, or the untenured. It's a minefield, given how passionate people are on the left and the right to demonize or lionize him. But I am not Marc Antony, and he was not Caesar. I do not wish to bury Reagan or to praise him - I simply wish to understand him. The Reagan that emerges in this book is more of an incrementalist than an ideologue that liberals feared and conservatives desired. He learned as an actor how to be a savvy negotiator, and used those skills. He also learned about the symbolic dimension of leadership, which conservatives fear often is Democratese for being a manipulative boob, but which I believe is an essential dimension of modern presidential leadership. Finally, the Reagan that emerges in the book can be criticized from both the left and the right - from the left for often failing to make important symbolic gestures and substantive concessions to groups which felt marginalized -- his perfect political pitch often failed him there; and from the right for talking about traditional values but actually advancing the highly individualistic, consumeristic, libertine revolution of the 1960s.

What is the most prevalent myth about the 1980s?

The most prevalent myth about the 1980s is that Ronald Reagan somehow turned back the clock to the age of Ozzie and Harriet. Reagan in fact led Americans "Back to the Future," as the popular movies from the 1980s suggested. Reagan's brand of easy listening nationalism and feel good consumerist libertinism reassured many Americans, and conjured up warm nostalgic feelings while pushing the nation forward politically and culturally, for better and worse.

Was the 1990s more 1980s than the 1980s?

The book argues that in many ways, what people feared the 1980s might be only really emerged in the 1990s. In the 1980s, there was more guilt, more hostility, more criticism, of the kind of mindless hedonism with which Reagan is associated; ten years later, there were fewer checks - and a lot more imbalance.

So much of Reagan's opposition was comprised of progressives mourning the death of the 1960s. How did Reagan serve as the "Great Conciliator" between sixties idealism and 1980s prosperity?

Just as every nineteenth century historian had to "get right with Lincoln," just as our parents had to get right with Roosevelt and the 1930s and 40s, we living today have to get right with the Sixties.

One of the great ironies of the 1980s is that while African-Americans, feminists, environmentalists, gays, and other progressives mourned the "great backlash," and the petering out of the reforming spirit, Reagan was creating what I call the Great Reconciliation between the 60s impulse and the 1980s. Even as the momentum of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, may have slowed, blacks, women, and gays were being integrated into mainstream American society -- and modern American consciousness and discourse -- as never before. Note, for example, the "Jackson 2" of the 1980s, if you will (as opposed to the Jackson 5 from the 1970s). The impact of Jesse Jackson on American politics, and of Michael Jackson, the "king of pop" on American culture, reflects this silent but continuing revolution, which quiet literally changed the face, voice, and vision of America.

The 1980s ushered in an obsession with celebrity and riches that continues to this day. Your book examines the 1980s pop-culture and entertainment phenomena taking place alongside the political stage. How did these two elements of American life fit together? Did Reagan's career as an entertainer have an influence on this nationwide frenzy?

Ronald Reagan's decades as a movie star taught him to respect the power of the media -- he often joked that he couldn't imagine how anyone could be a politician if he hadn't been in showbiz. And that's one of the reasons why he exerted such a powerful hold on the American people, this ability to speak to Americans in their language, with their symbols, blurring the political and the cultural was unique -- and the revolution in politics reinforced the revolution in media. Reagan himself recognized that he didn't conjure up the mood -- he noted in his memoirs the powerful surge of patriotism that greeted the launching of the Shuttle Columbia in April 1981. Reagan's genius was in his ability to hijack these cultural forces - and make them his own, from "Dynasty" -- which began production a year before his election -- to the light and happy news of USA Today. Reagan cannot take credit as the initiator of these trends necessarily, but he "invented" the 1980s by coopting the forces, making them his own, and, in typical 1980s fashion, packaging them expertly.

Did Reagan really define the 1980s more than JFK defined the sixties, FDR defined the thirties, or Eisenhower defined the fifties? Why and how?

Reagan certainly learned from FDR and JFK how to cross the nation's cultural and political wires and how to assert symbolic leadership in the modern presidency. But Reagan was able to take this leadership model to the next level because the nation was that much more wired together, thanks to the power of television, in particular. Television was not just able to set the national agenda -- but especially during the 1980s, TV helped blur the lines between politics and culture, between information and entertainment. Reagan's Hollywood background -- and easy listening American nationalism -- suited the less serious, more integrated political culture that was emerging.

If you could name one event that defined Reagan's presidency and the 1980s, what would that be?

I called the book Morning in America, which was Reagan's campaign slogan during his victorious 1984 re-election campaign. And that may have been the defining moment, linking the politics and culture of the 1980s. As Reagan successfully co-opted the Olympic spirit emanating from his beloved Southern California during the Los Angeles Olympics, as he celebrated the prosperity that had begun to kick in, as he ran a sugary, rather non-programmatic re-election campaign, Reagan was at the top of his game. Some of his ads were so warm, fuzzy, patriotic and effective, that the Secret Service agents previewing them with Reagan wept -- as did the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale's campaign workers. And in perhaps the ultimate triumph, Reagan and his Republicans took Bruce Springsteen's rather critical ode "Born in the USA" and used the triumphal, repetitive chorus: "Born in the USA, I was Born in the USA" to upstage the lyrics. In the 1980s, anybody who could best "The Boss," was pretty darned good.

What impact has Reagan's presidency had on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush? What impact will it have on future presidents?

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush learned how to be president by watching -- and aping -- Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the most valuable lesson both learned was the notion of the big-picture presidency. If your administration has a central overriding theme, vision, and plot line -- be it peace and prosperity or the war on terror -- that powerful narrative arc can overshadow "minor" problems such as Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky, the War in Iraq. The media may carp, Congress may investigate, but a surprising percentage of the American people are most likely to respond to the big picture -- and if they like that, they'll show a remarkable ability to forgive or ignore pretty dramatic missteps.

How is the influence and impact of George W. Bush similar to or different from that of Reagan?

President Bush has learned from Reagan the value of having a vision -- and rooting that vision in American idealism and the all-American commitment to expanding freedom. Bush has learned from Reagan the value of sticking to your guns, of being assertive and affirmative, of speaking over the heads of the cynical and hypercritical media directly to the American people. But whereas Reagan governed as a centrist and an incrementalist even while paying homage to the right, Bush often lunges right when governing. Reagan often governed with an implicit challenge to the right, all but saying, "who you gonna go for, Jimmy Carter? Walter Mondale?"; Bush, partially because his pre-presidential conservative bona fides were more suspect, has worked hard to woo the right when governing not just when politicking.

Is there anything we can predict about George W. Bush's second term from looking back to Reagan's second term?

Predicting is a notoriously messy business, but there's an interesting irony here. Ronald Reagan began with a clear focus and ended -- especially after his sugary 1984 campaign -- with a muddled mandate; Bush began with a muddle, not quite sure why he was running in 2000 or what he sought to accomplish, but has now emerged, post 9/11 and demonstrated clearly both in the campaign and the inauguration, with a real focus.

Does today's red state/blue state divisiveness have its roots in the Reagan era?

Absolutely, Ronald Reagan is the political godfather of this era, the key factor in the regional realignments as well as the political polarizations. Much of the hype around Reagan focuses on the patriotic resurgence and how well he re-energized the American center. This is true, but it came at a cost -- at the same time he alienated Americans on the margins, and blacks, women, gays, academics, felt unwelcome at Reagan's great 1980s barbecue.

What should today's Democrats learn from this book?

Democrats should look back to the 1980s to see the value of an effective opposition, culturally as well as politically, in moderating the Reagan Revolution, in putting on the brakes. In fact, I would argue that the combination of Republicans in the majority and the Democrats in the opposition in the 1980s, worked particularly well, allowing Reagan to create his new synthesis, his new vision, but with Democrats moderating it -- and injecting certain notes of guilt around all the gilding, which helped prevent the 1980s from being the Gilded Age Democrats warned it might become.

What should George W. Bush learn?

President Bush should learn three valuable lessons -- the first two of which contradict slightly.

First, the power of the American push toward centrism - and the need, for ultimate success, for the president to play to the center and avoid revolutionary change. And yet, second, the importance of having a broad vision, which can give your presidency and your times an overall trajectory, a narrative arc and an ideological tone, which if popular can provide essential insurance against the inevitable miscues and missteps.

Finally, third, the importance of trying to assert cultural leadership not just political leadership. We live in the age of the celebrity presidency, and for a president to avoid the symbolic, the personal, the big picture, is to abandon critical tools which can build your legend, advance your agenda, and boost your popularity.

Did George W. Bush's second inaugural address project Reagan's qualities in any way?

Bush's second inaugural address incorporated two important Reaganesque lessons. First, it told the story of his presidency - just as the Reagan narrative began with the despair of the 60s and 70s and ended with Reagan's morning in America, Bush began with the defeat of Communism, then proceeded to the years of sabbatical, of repose, meaning the 1990s, then the traumas of 9/11, followed by the new vision, the new resolve.

Second, Bush's almost mystical faith in democracy -- and the inevitable spread of liberty -- echoed Reagan at his most expansive and idealistic.

How did America change in between Reagan's inaugural and his last day in office?

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Americans would still think of Apple as a fruit, not a computer; of "power ties" as electric lines, not fashion statements; of Madonna as a theological figure, not a celebrity; of Sonny Bono as a rock star, not a politician; of The Big Chill as blowing in from Canada, not Hollywood; of "greenmail" as a colorful letter, not a predatory financial tactic; of a secretary, not a fancy tape recorder as an answering machine. AIDS would sound like helpers, not a scourge; Iran-contra would sound like a folk dance with a Mideastern twist, not a scandal; a salad bar would sound like a contradiction in terms; and Boy George would evoke thoughts of the first U.S. president when he was young and menacing cherry trees.

Miami Vice would not sound suitable for polite company. CNN, MTV, ESPN, and VCR would mean nothing, with PC meaning neither a personal computer nor politically correct. Rapping meant communicating intensely or tapping lightly, not chanting rhythmically; a mouse squeaked but did not click; windows broke but did not crash; people wore boots but could not reboot. California Adonises surfed, television couch potatoes didn't. Trump referred to bridge, not buildings. The Berlin Wall was up, the stock market down. The Supreme Court was all male. And America's most famous Turners were Ike and Tina, not Ted.

Some of these changes were significant, others ephemeral, but it was Ronald Reagan who provided the context which gave many of these passing phenomena greater meaning -- and that's what this book is trying to assess and explain.

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Maarja Krusten - 4/2/2005

I can understand why academic bloggers rarely discuss public access to “the essential evidence of governance.” Depending on their field of specialty, they may never have set foot in the National Archives or any of its Presidential Libraries. The laws and regulations surrounding access to presidential records are arcane and complex and few HNNers seem interested in learning about them.

But after a year of following HNN, I am curious why people such as Gil Troy, Allan Lichtman, and Thomas C. Reeves--people who write or have written about Presidents--rarely if ever mention such issues. At the same time that Mr. Troy is promoting his book, people such as Stanley Kutler and I have been discussing on HNN access to Presidential records and speculating about what the cancellation of the Nixon conference and the forced removal of the U.S. archivist portends. But the types of issues that I raise in my comments at, including one today about Sandy Berger and the culture of deference that surrounds Presidential Libraries, rarely are raised on HNN by scholars who rely on the National Archives.

Does anyone have an explanation for this? Without getting into details, I know the Nixon scholars are split into at least two different camps due to conflicting interpretation of Watergate and it is unlikely they can unite to advocate together on behalf of NARA. Some of them do raise their individual voices but the split appears too deep for joint advocacy.

I am thinking here about other scholars. What explains their failure to spend any, or more, professional capital on helping the agency that they depend on for the primary source materials necessary for research? Does self absorption play a part or is it something else? Do scholars simply take NARA for granted? Do they lack understanding of what it is like to be charged with safeguarding records but to do so as a Presidential subordinate? If so, they are failing to connect the dots, see what I said today on the other thread about the Sandy Berger case and a seeming culture of deference to power.

Greg James Robinson - 3/31/2005

Professor Troy starts his rebuttal to my critique of his piece by asserting that I am indulging in “silly personal stuff” and accusing him of “moral failing” over our not having met. What I said is that I hesitated to comment publicly on his work because we are both American historians in Montreal. Therefore, we are in a sense colleagues, despite our lack of direct contact. I find it curious that Professor Troy should consider this expression of professional courtesy a personal attack.

In any case, I am much more interested in what Troy says about Ronald Reagan than what he says about me. I stated, indeed, that I was in sympathy with his goal of producing a more objective look at Ronald Reagan, and the difficulties inherent in such a project. While I await the chance to read Troy’s book before passing final judgment, I am sceptical that Ronald Reagan can be usefully described as a conciliator. I do not see how he incarnated or reconciled the spirit of the 1060s and 1980s. Certainly, I think Professor Troy and I agree that he failed to reach out to marginalized groups, at least for most of his presidency. Whatever his personal views on race, Reagan’s starting his 1980 campaign by speaking in Philadelphia, Mississippi in support of “state’s rights” was not calculated to advance racial healing. If Juan Cole is correct in his citation of Reagan’s stump speech that the true cause of “hunger in America” was people dieting, it points up a particular mean-spiritedness in Reagan’s attitude. I have always thought that George H.W. Bush’s using of the slogan “a kinder, gentler nation” in 1988 (in a campaign otherwise marked by tawdriness) was a not so subtle distancing of the candidate from Ronald Reagan and his image as a divider.

I also think that calling Reagan a centrist does not due justice either to Reagan’s own image of himself or of the nature of his program (and his success, at least in his first term, in pushing radical change through a formally divided Congress). To the extent that the changes he brought about were less sweeping than the Republican rhetoric, and disappointed ideologues, I would consider this less a product of Reagan’s centrist politics than of political conditions and economic realities. Professor Troy properly notes the role of the Democrats in restraining Reagan’s actions. (I presume he deals with how Reagan shifted to deal with the Democrat-controlled 100th Congress, and his signature of the Hunger Act and Japanese American Redress in the last weeks before the 1988 election). Still, Troy would do well to focus on Reagan’s actions in areas where he was less handicapped by Congress, such as his Supreme Court appointments (confirmed and not) of Antonin Scalia, Robert Bork, and Douglas Ginsburg, an extraordinary trio of ideologues.

Gil Troy - 3/30/2005


For starters, let’s get the “silly” personal stuff out of the way, Professor Robinson seems to want to make it some sort of moral failing on my part that we haven’t met – my number is in the phone book, my email is easily found. It takes two to tango, he is free to call me up anytime – and hasn’t. I assume(d) no enmity on his part, there certainly is none on mine – we teach at different institutions and most of us lead very busy, overprogrammed lives.
Second, I’m sorry Professor Robinson dislikes the format – I confess, it is indeed part of a broader attempt to promote my new book, MORNING IN AMERICA: HOW RONALD REAGAN INVENTED THE 1980S, and it’s standard practice among publishers these days to have authors prepare these kinds of Q and As as a way of highlighting some key ideas and morsels from the book.
As for the substance of Professor Robinson’s challenge, allow me a few quick responses:
 the central tension I address in the book, which is trying to explore both Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, is this question of the man and the moment, how much one individual can and does shape the times. It is obviously a complex question, and my argument is that while Reagan certainly did not “invent” many of the individual cultural and political phenomena that shaped America in the 1980s, historians can credit him with “inventing” the 1980s, because of the way his symbolic leadership, what I call the Reagan narrative or storyline, created a template through which supporters and detractors viewed many of those changes. In truth, Reagan was more hijacker than inventor, able to brand certain phenomena, to place his stamp on all kinds of things that predated him or popped up independently of him.
 The idea of the “Reagan Reconciliation” is not intended as an apologia for Reagan’s indifference to civil rights, feminist sensibilities, or the early stirrings of the AIDS crisis. Nor is the characterization of Reagan as more of a centrist than supporters and detractors expected him to be, and as more of an incrementalist than a revolutionary, necessarily a compliment (certainly not to the legions of Reagan acolytes currently publishing books about Reagan’s Revolution and forgetting the persistent conservative frustration with RR when he was President). The way I link the two concepts in the introduction (pp. 18-19) is by writing: “Looking back, then, the 1980s emerge as a watershed decade, a time when the Great Reconciliation between Reaganite conservatism and 1960s liberalism occurred. For all the talk about repudiating the New Deal, dismantling the Great Society, and undoing the 1960s’ social and cultural revolutions, many innovations became routinized and institutionalized. The tone changed, Americans overall felt less mopey and less gloomy, less idealistic and more materialistic, but the melodies lingered on, from environmentalism to feminism, from the rights revolution to the continuing revolt against authority. Reagan, at heart, was not a revolutionary. He was more a conciliator than a reformer, to the frustration of ideologues like David Stockman and to the great relief of many others.”
 It appears that on the question of individualism, consumerism, libertinism, etc, Professor Robinson and I agree. I argue in the book that one of the ways in which Reagan crossed wires and helped reconcile the 1960s with the 1980s was by embracing a highly individualistic, consumerist, libertine version of nationalist conservatism. I believe that’s actually one of the unappreciated anomalies about Reagan and his ideology, and one of his strengths as a leader, while appearing to fight the zeitgeist, he was much more accommodating that many believed, making his views more palatable for the American mainstream.
 The question of how much poverty grew in Reagan’s administration (and dare I add, Clinton’s) is very complex and contentious – acknowledging that, rather than making sweeping unsubstantiated claims as Professor Robinson does – also is not an endorsement of Reagan’s policies, just as appreciating the Wilsonian, Rooseveltian, and Kennedesyque faith in democracy expressed in George W. Bush’s inaugural address, does not make me a Bushie.
 While as, a modern academic, I would not – and did not – make claims to being “objective” or “bias free,” I did indeed try to write a book which goes beyond the tedious, predictable partisan straitjacket of the 1980s – and of modern political discourse (as well as, I'm sorry to say, most modern academic discourse). I’m happy to report that most of the early reviewers of the book have picked up on that and praised the book as “balanced” – which is a different, and I believe more attainable, objective, er, goal. That the book will not satisfy all is inevitable – I note that writing about Reagan is a minefield, neither for the faint-hearted nor the untenured. But contrary to the caricature of me which Professor Robinson implicitly drew in his posting, I remain open to hearing alternative points of view, that’s part of the fun of writing a book and being in the world of ideas.

Necessarily, a one or two page summary of a 350 page book will oversimplify. It is meant to entice not infuriate… (although it never hurts to mix it up a bit, too). I know I have much to learn from Professor Robinson – and other colleagues. I would be happy to meet him, learn from him – and would even lend him a copy of the book so he can make more nuanced criticisms based on my fuller argument.

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