Sean Wilentz: Even conservatives say his new book on Reagan is mostly even-handed





In "The Age of Reagan" (HarperCollins, 564 pages, $27.95), Mr. Wilentz seeks to assure his readers that he has strived to lay aside his personal views, and to judge "the past scrupulously" by engaging in "a willing suspension of [his] own beliefs." This reader is glad to report that, in this study of the Reagan presidency and its impact on America, Mr. Wilentz achieves this aim, for the most part — although at times, he does drift into the type of anti-Reagan attacks one heard during the 1980s from Reagan's liberal opponents. Above all, what Mr. Wilentz seeks to do is rescue the real Reagan from what he calls the mythological president offered by supporters on the right and critics on the left. In so doing, he makes judgments that will rankle both.

What will particularly upset many partisan Democrats is Mr. Wilentz's conclusion that Reagan stands with presidents such as Jackson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln as a leader "who for better or worse have put their political stamp indelibly on their time." Moreover, he argues, Reagan deserves credit as a president who took ideas seriously, and more than his immediate predecessors, redefined the politics of the era, thus "reshaping the basic terms on which politics and government would be conducted long after he left office." Mr. Wilentz acknowledges and praises Reagan's optimistic spirit, and the way in which he energized the public and made Americans once again proud of their nation, lifting his countrymen out of the doldrums suffered during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years....

His final judgment is that Reagan was great because he understood American politics, and aside from Iran-Contra, he "practiced the art of compromise shrewdly." He had more of an effect on the temper of the times and the shift of the nation to the right, thereby "reshaping the basic terms on which politics and government would be conducted long after he left office."

Mr. Wilentz should have ended his book with that sentence. Instead, he writes many chapters on the Bush presidency and the Clinton years, even ending with the expected attack on George W. Bush, whom Mr. Wilentz elsewhere calls the worst president in American history.

Mr. Wilentz reaches judgments with which many people, including this writer, will disagree. He supports the Reagan whose policies he likes, and criticizes fiercely the Reagan whose policies he opposes. In those pages, he fails his own test of remaining objective. Yet despite this flaw, any student of our past will learn a great deal from his book about what Ronald Reagan did for America, and how he changed our nation. Mr. Wilentz has written an essential book for our times.


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