The Age of Reagan: An Interview with Sean Wilentz (Part I)


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University, is the author most recently of The Age of Reagan (2008). He was interviewed by email. Part II will appear in a subsequent edition of HNN.

When I first heard about your book I admit wondering, "Now what in the world is Sean Wilentz doing in the 20th century. He's a 19th century historian." So my first question is: Why did you decide to write a history book (and not just an op ed) about recent history--and this aspect of recent history?

I've tried to resist settling into ruts in my writing. True, almost all of my historical work until now has been on the era between the Revolution and the Civil War.  But I've moved around within that field, writing first on labor and politics, then on religious mania, then undertaking smaller efforts in biography and African-American history, and finally writing a long work of political history.  In some ways, deciding about recent politics has been a logical extension, to me anyway, of writing about politics from Jefferson to Jackson. But like most writers, I’m not really sure why I write what I do, I just write it.

My more popular (but, I hope, no less serious) writing, has been all over the American map, from the Revolution to rhythm & blues. I do try to write in different keys and registers, experimenting with form and well as subject. The Age of Reagan was just another experiment, this time in writing about recent history, including what Theodore Draper called "present history."    

Did you worry that your colleagues would think you were writing about an area outside your usual zone of expertise?

No. My fellow historians at Princeton, always a strong influence, don't think in that narrow way, so maybe that helped.  But a book rises or falls on its own merits, not on what professors say a historian is allowed to do. 

You say at the outset that you decided not to conduct interviews in connection with your research. Why not? If you had a chance to interview, say, Andrew Jackson, wouldn't you leap at the chance because of the insights you could glean for your next book about 19th century American politics?

Had I conducted a single interview for the Reagan era book, I'd’ve felt duty bound to interview everyone of importance, which would have taken forever. I’d still be making the early rounds! Anyway, I'm mistrustful of most interviews as historical sources, especially when it comes to people about whom there are extensive historical records.  Having conducted interviews for other enterprises, I’ve been through the dance of subjectivities that can get in the way of accuracy and forthright interpretation. Interviewing is inescapable for almost all reporters, as well as for historians writing from what used to be called “the bottom up.” Some of my favorite history books, by the likes of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Taylor Branch, among others, have brilliantly deployed interview material.  I have great respect for the art, when done well.  But it can be dangerous for historians writing largely about high politics in recent times and who want to preserve their detachment. What gets lost in the way of inside dope and “fly-on-the-wall” anecdotes is more than made up for by what there is to be found in the written record.
At any rate, I have no training in historical interviewing, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d be particularly good at it. So I decided to heed my limitations and instead follow as best I could, in this area, the diverse examples of Draper, I.F. Stone, and, going way back, Frederick Lewis Allen (who based his wonderful Only Yesterday almost entirely on printed sources, though he did report visiting Woodrow Wilson at the very end of Wilson’s life.).

I'm actually not sure I would want to interview Jackson, for the same basic reason that I wouldn't have wanted to interview Ronald Reagan. Both were arresting men who, purposely, acted in ways that made them difficult to read.  (Simply meeting them, of course, or even laying eyes on them, would be a different matter.  But that's largely for private reasons, not for historical research.)

Your book about Reagan came out coincidentally at the same time as Rick Perlstein's book about Nixon. This was serendipitous for it allowed readers to consider whether we are living in The Age of Reagan or Nixonland. So: Why do you think Reagan is a more compelling symbol of the last 40 years than Nixon?

Basically, I think that Nixon failed and Reagan succeeded.  Had Nixon gotten away with Watergate, it all might have been different.  He didn't. And I think that the combined effects of the Vietnam disaster and Watergate blew to pieces what had been the political center in both parties – one of the crucial features on the politics of the last thirty-five years or so.  The Democrats only began to recover in the 1990s, and in some ways they have yet to recover fully.  Among Republicans, Nixon's downfall paved the way for Reagan's ascendancy -- and the completion of a transformation of the Republican Party into the party of Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, there were continuities between Nixon's presidency and the Reagan era. Two of them are named Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.  And Reagan also failed at completing a great deal that he set out to achieve, while many of his successes proved failures for the country.  But his successes, whether harmful or not -- ranging from a fundamental skewing of the progressive federal income tax system to embracing Mikhail Gorbachev -- had far larger and more enduring importance than anything Nixon achieved.

My friend Rick Perlstein argues that Nixon's style of politics -- divisive, coded, based on resentment above all else -- dominated the succeeding decades of American politics, and there is some truth to that. I just don't think there's enough truth to it to back his claim that we’re still living in what Adlai Stevenson dubbed “Nixonland.” Reagan's political style, even when it stoked division, was fundamentally different from Nixon's, much as his ideas and ideology were different. Let’s not forget how, even when it came around to supporting Nixon in 1968, the Goldwater wing of the GOP still basically distrusted him – and came around only after Reagan abandoned his first try for the Republican nomination that same year.

In fairness, though, Rick and I argued about this in a little online debate for the New Republic website, so readers might want to look at that exchange to get both sides, and in greater detail.

Reading your book I kept wondering what exactly your achievement is. The portraits of Reagan and Clinton--the two leading figures in the book--seemed awfully familiar. It finally dawned on me that what you have done is merge the most persuasive arguments made by both Democrats and Republicans about Reagan and Clinton while conceding the indictments made by their fair-minded critics. You acknowledge Reagan and Clintons' many weaknesses while simultaneously making the case for their strengths. Is this how you view what you've done?

Sounds good to me! (I wish the book's reviewers had been universal in finding such achievements -- although I'm also grateful that, for the most part, they have been kind.)

It's important to clarify, however, that I don't think Clinton is nearly as important to my book as Reagan is.  Clinton is certainly the most important Democrat, by far, and his effort to rebuild a center-left liberalism was, I think, the most fruitful and significant political counter to Reagan and Reaganism before 2008.  But, in part because of the bizarre outcome of  the elections of 2000, Reagan looms over everyone else.

I do think I tried to be fair to both men.  And if I set out to do anything, it was to rescue them from the literatures of hagiography and pathography into which they have fallen.  Readers will disagree about how well I've succeeded.  But I did want to establish, at least, a more detached, more historical tone, as well as a more historical approach, to both Reagan and Clinton -- and to all the other figures in the book – without abdicating the historians’ responsibility to draw interpretations. 

On reflection, I would, revise some of the book’s details -- giving Reagan more credit, for example, for deploying the Euromissiles during his first term (which at the time was widely viewed as reckless warmongering).  I hope to explain some of these second thoughts in the introduction to the paperback edition, due out in May. No doubt, I'll change my mind about more during the years to come -- and other historians will force me to change it more than I’d like!  I sure hope so. But overall, I tried to be fair, within the limits of the evidence that was available when I finished the manuscript.

 One of your central arguments has to do with the fall of the Soviet Union. You relate that Reagan told an advisor before his presidency began that the story line of the Soviet Union would be, we win, they lose. That makes Reagan seem eerily prescient; few others were predicting the Soviet Union's destruction. Many people today believe Reagan brought about the end of the Cold War. Conservatives give credit to his arms build-up. But you say that wasn't what did did the trick. Please tell us why you think the build-up was irrelevant to the demise of the Soviet Union--and what exactly you think we should be giving Reagan credit for.

It's not simply a matter of the arms build-up; the question, I think, concerns the success of the entire so-called Reagan Doctrine, which included the proxy wars in Central America, Africa, and Asia, the interventions in Grenada and Lebanon, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, as well as military spending.  For the most part, I think that these policies, when they weren't disastrous (causing bloodbaths, notably in El Salvador) had little impact in moving the Soviet Union toward ending the Cold War.  As I said, I should have given Reagan more credit in the book for deploying the Euromissles -- a reply to Soviet nuclear deployments in the 1970s which was an important counter to the Brezhnev Doctrine, and may well have contributed, in an unintended way, to Gorbachev's rise in 1985.  And, as I do say in the book, Reagan's foreign policy, from the start, encouraged dissident forces in the Soviet Union as well as the Soviet bloc, after world events overwhelmed the well intentioned, even noble human rights policies of Jimmy Carter.

Otherwise, though, I think the Reagan Doctrine accomplished little -- and that includes S.D.I., which I believe the evidence shows was never intended as an instrument to bring the Soviets to their knees (as many of Reagan's admirers now claim), but rather to achieve exactly what Reagan said he wanted it to achieve: protect the American people (and, in time, the entire globe) from the threat of nuclear annihilation.  Reagan may have been one of the few members of his administration -- and maybe even the only member -- who truly thought it would work, but he did.

Reagan's great accomplishment in foreign policy – indeed, in his entire presidency -- was to recognize that Gorbachev was not, as so many of his right-wing allies insisted, a Stalinist with nice suits and good p.r., but a genuine agent of change.  In the aftermath of Iran-Contra (a chilling, nutty but logical outgrowth of the Reagan Doctrine), Reagan was able to recoup his presidency in his dealings with Gorbachev. Yet Reagan’s motivations were larger than just saving his own bacon.  Reagan had a genuine horror at the prospect of an all-out nuclear exchange which, along with other elements in his thinking that have been slighted for too long, was very important in shaping his political evolution.

There are those who give Reagan all of the credit for bringing the Cold War to an end and opening the way for the Soviets' downfall.  There are those who give him no credit.  Both are wrong.  To see the Reagan Doctrine as the great force behind Reagan's contribution seems to me, on the basis of the evidence, equally wrong. But for the details about why I think so -- I don't want to give everything away here -- readers can go to my book.

 Do liberals make bad critics? In the 1950s they underestimated Dwight Eisenhower as a president and now it appears from your book that they underestimated Ronald Reagan. If the liberal's indictment of both presidents was misguided in key ways, what does that say about liberalism? Are liberals inclined to measure presidents during their time in office by the wrong metrics? Do we disparage an Ike because he isn't articulate and criticize a Reagan because he believes in creationism and thereby miss their larger significance?

To your first question: No more than conservatives make bad critics.  I recall that National Review backed the Southern segregationists in the 1950's, positing that Southern whites and their political leaders represented, at least for the moment, the more “advanced” of the region’s two largest racial groups.  (William F. Buckley, to his credit; later rejected that position.) John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were, if not underestimated, vilified as godless One Worlders. (Whatever else they were, they were not that.) And so on.  The question, I think, comes down to: why are liberals and conservatives bad critics? I think modern liberals are, as you say, apt to underestimate their opponents out of a certain intellectual and social arrogance. (This is particularly, even uniquely the case for the "new politics" reformist wing of the Democratic Party, as well as most of the liberal intelligentsia, save some idiosyncratic exceptions, such as Murray Kempton on Eisenhower.) 

Like conservatives, liberals are sure they know what is best for the country and the world.  Traditionally, conservatives blamed any departure from their ideas to populist demagogues and the great unwashed, whereas liberals blamed the forces of big business and its minions.  More recently, though, liberals have blamed the people themselves for electing leaders who, as conservatives, by definition do not have the people's best interests in mind. The people -- or too many of them -- are not just misled; they are stupid, sheepish bigots, victims of false consciousness, who fail to see the superior merits of Adlai Stevenson or Walter Mondale or John Kerry, and instead elect amiable dunces. That, many liberals have long posited, is what the matter with the country is, starting with Kansas.

Now, to slight Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allies in World War II, as basically a cornball doofus was itself, as Kempton pointed out, itself one of the stupidest political judgments of the 1950s..  Reagan's achievements before 1980 were less imposing than Ike's -- but liberal arrogance led too many in the Democratic Party to dismiss him as a lightweight pitchman for the corporate ruling class.  Reagan, by the way, was perfectly happy for liberals to view him that way -- and then take them to the cleaners.  And, when the image of the doddering old man became useful to Reagan in order to escape blame in Iran-Contra (an affair in which he was, the evidence shows, guilty as sin), he was happy to deploy it.  Once again, he outfoxed the condescending liberals.

It is, I think, cynically demagogic for conservatives to play on the resentments this condescension causes – as if Ivy-League pencil-necked geeks like yours truly have been chiefly responsible for the nation’s problems, even after 1980. But the resentments don’t appear out of thin air; nor are they pathological or artificial.  Liberals ought to examine their own prejudices, and how they help feed the resentments which conservatives exploit – and how those prejudices contribute to their misunderstanding and slighting of their political adversaries, while harboring contempt for tens of millions of their fellow Americans. 

On the other hand, your book suggests that conservatives as well need to take a hard look in the mirror to take into account their own illusions. After reading your chapter about the collapse of the savings and loan industry, the costliest scandal in US history, which you convincingly lay directly at the feet of Reagan's government, I began to wonder why so many conservatives have been willing to say nice things about your book. Did they skip this chapter? It seems to me that because you are willing to give Reagan credit for helping to end the Cold War they are willing to overlook much that's in the book about their hero's flaws.

This has surprised me a little too.  Perhaps some conservatives are so flummoxed to hear a historian whom they know to be a liberal Democrat say anything positive about Reagan that they are also disarmed. But that can't be true for all of them -- including George Will and R. Emmet Tyrell, who are virtually impossible to flummox or disarm, yet who have said generous things about the book.  Maybe it's just an appeal to fair debate about Reagan, which may be possible now as it wasn't twenty years ago.
But let's not give the impression that the book has been nicely received by all the conservative reviewers. I came across one review recently in a conservative outlet that is as harsh as any I've received about any of my historical writing.  A few other reviewers have -- predictably I suppose, as well as angrily -- dismissed the book as nothing more than shill work on behalf of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, although I suspect some of these reviews came from the Left and not the Right.

I also imagined that liberals and the liberal reviews would be much more critical of the book, given that it says what it does about Reagan.  But it may be that, with the old Reaganite coalition now in deep trouble, liberals may feel less threatened, and be willing to give Reagan his due as an important figure.  Who knows?

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/9/2008

Wilentz claims the "bizarre election result of 2000" extended Reaganism, or the Reagan influence.

The circumstances leading to the result were certainly bizarre, but I don't think there was anything bizarre about the 2000 result. Bush had Gore by four million votes a couple of days before the election, when the DNC sprung the 20-year-old DUI "news" it had been holding since March, which threw the election into the courts. Public interest in the DUI waned very fast, and I submit that without this trickery there would have been a more normal reading on election day.

The same conservative majority has continued through the Kerry defeat by 3.5 million votes in 2004, despite an unpopular war, and into the current campaign in which McCain leads rather handily. (Depending on the strength of the Bradley/Wilder factor, McCain could easily win by a landslide).

If this whole period had not also seen a huge influx of illegal aliens, many of whom vote while illegal, and many of whom vote after receiving amnesty, and most of whom vote Democratic, it would be even easier to see the pattern of consistent rejection of very liberal Democrats.

Accordingly, the national pivot under Ronald Reagan has never been reversed.