My Take on Gil Troy's Take on Ronald Reagan
HNN this week presents as a special feature: Gil Troy’s interview with Gil Troy, a piece puffing his new work on Ronald Reagan, MORNING IN AMERICA. I must confess to a certain distaste for all such self-interviews, which put me in mind of the saw about the lawyer who argues his own case having a fool for a client. It is difficult to do such an article without appearing self-serving. Professor Troy even manages the astounding feat of ducking his own question: When he asks himself how America changed during the Reagan years (the only useful meaning of which, for analytical purposes, would be “How did Reagan change America?”) he answers instead with a cutesy listing of cultural references like the PC, AIDS and rapping, things unknown in 1979 but ubiquitous by 1989. (Since these things arrived elsewhere too, even without the presence of Ronald Reagan, we do not gain insight by the recital).
Still, after reading the piece, my first temptation was to keep my opinions of it to myself, at least until I had read the book. As a fellow member of the small circle of American Historians in Montreal—although I have never yet met Professor Troy in the 4 years I have been here—I thought it best not to gossip about my neighbors to those on the outside. Also, while I disagree vehemently with many of Troy’s ideas on current events (his rhapsodies in the piece about George W. Bush’s “almost mystical faith in democracy” and his commitment to expanding freedom leave me thinking how much Troy has been taken in), I agreed with many of Professor Troy’s comments about Reagan’s media skills and his use of symbolic politics. I also have a certain sympathy with the assignment he has set himself. Troy is no doubt correct that it is difficult to write objectively about Reagan because of the widespread admiration or detestation his administration still arouses.
However, my forbearance was overmatched by some demonstrably silly things Professor Troy says, which do not increase my confidence in his powers of interpretation, and which I feel I must point out.
First, Mr. Troy credits Reagan with creating “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.” Leaving aside the question of what credit that Reagan, with his indifference—to say no more-- to civil rights, can legitimately claim for such “reconciliation” (with a country more divided socially and racially than when Reagan took office), Troy’s chronology and logic are off. Certainly the Lesbian and Gay movement, despite the major obstacles of a conservative backlash and of AIDS (on which Reagan’s inaction and silence represents a major historical blot on his administration) expanded dramatically during his term. By 1987, a March on Washington drew as many as 650,000 people. The movement for a nuclear freeze expanded in direct opposition to Reagan’s strong public posture.
Mr. Troy actually tips his view of the 1960s, though in the service of a supposed balance, by stating how Reagan is not only open to criticism from the Left, but also criticism “from the right for talking about traditional values but actually advancing the highly individualistic, consumeristic, libertine revolution of the 1960s.” (italics mine). As Christopher Lasch, hardly a fanatical rightist, cogently argued in his last works, the victories of consumerism and individualism in the United States are not an accident of the political movements of the 1960s but of market capitalism throughout the Western World (the Right in the United States necessarily encourages such values under the rubric of “the free market,” because it advances their own interests). While I do not entirely buy Lasch’s argument, it is not only mistaken but biased to attribute these values to people on the left.
Finally, Troy claims that, unlike the current occupant of the White House, “Reagan governed as a centrist and an incrementalist even while paying homage to the right.” While it is true that Reagan was able to attract support from the hard right (especially the Religious right) without achieving a great deal substantively for them, a glance at Reagan’s two predecessors and successors, who did more genuinely govern as centrists, shows how cockeyed this image is. Reagan pushed to slash government aid to education and social services and dismantled civil rights enforcement. The rise in poverty under his administration was certainly more than incremental.
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Greg James Robinson - 3/30/2005
Professor Troy starts his rebuttal to my critique of his piece (http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=57587#57587) 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 1960s 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.
Greg James Robinson - 3/29/2005
Another way to improve objectivity is to consult works by foreigners, since they normally do not have such a "parti pris" (although sometimes they have other problems in terms of misunderstanding cultural questions) It would be interesting to discover whether Troy's book cites Pierre Melandri's thoughtful biography of Reagan, or Guy Sorman's works on American conservatism.
Anne Zook - 3/29/2005
Not particularly relevant, but I'm always annoyed by people who say you can't write "objectively" about topics that create controversy.
To the extent any writing is objective, you most certain can do so. Balance your sources, watch your own analysis with an eagle eye, and if you're lucky enough to have a perspective of 10-20 years, evaluate the outcomes of major events clearly. (Then, pick someone who doesn't agree with your own biases to glance over your material and see what makes them foam at the mouth.)
Closer to the topic, I'd say the Right is determined to enshrine Reagan regardless of historical truth and the continual flow of books illustrates only that some of them have the honesty to realize that there is much that needs to be explained away.
(And I'm not impressed by anyone who "interviews" themself. It's more than a bit egocentric and precious.)