Blogs > HNN > Hail Reagania!

Jan 27, 2008 11:07 am


Hail Reagania!



[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

So far, it seems that the most popular politician in the 2008 presidential campaign is the late Ronald Reagan, who last ran for office 24 years ago. The Republican candidates invoke “President Reagan” far more frequently and adoringly than they mention the current incumbent, and even the Democratic Senator Barack Obama has gotten into the act. Obama recently elbowed Hillary Clinton by mocking Bill Clinton’s presidential legacy. Showing that he uses the same charming grin and upbeat cadence to deliver good news and hard body blows, the Democrats’ wonder boy observed that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” It seems that conservative Republicans have forgotten how often he frustrated them, and Democrats have forgotten how much they despised him.

In 1989, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan waved goodbye to the American people, few would have predicted this Reagan revival. In truth, Reagan’s poll ratings throughout the 1980s fluctuated far more than even most Americans realized at the time. And by the end of Reagan’s two terms, even though many had great affection for him, many were also fed up with Reagan’s inattention to detail, his squabbling official and real families, and the various disasters on his watch, most notably the Iran-contra scandal, the huge budget deficits, the 1987 stock market crash, and the growing epidemic of materialism and selfishness in America. Similarly, conservatives were torn between worshiping Reagan the man and grumbling about his record which was more moderate than they had hoped, having failed to end the era of big government.

Ronald Reagan’s legacy has been resurrected thanks, mostly, to his three successors: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Initially, George H.W. Bush, earned press and public acclaim by distancing himself from Reagan. Bush appeared as the real Reagan, the guy who actually was a war hero, attended church, and raised a model family, rather than simply talking about it. President Bush emphasized his longer hours and his hands-on management, triggering respectful portraits of him as a functional chief executive. As the new president’s stock climbed, the old president’s lagged.

Eventually, however, President Bush stumbled in areas where President Reagan excelled. As the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics demanded their freedom, Bush behaved cautiously, fearing that if he gloated too much he would trigger a Soviet crackdown. As a result, even though the Communist grip on Eastern Europe loosened under Bush’s watch, President Reagan earned more historical credit, for having launched the process, and shaping it with dramatic moments. Bush could not match Reagan’s June, 1987 call at the Berlin Wall to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” More broadly, Bush’s awkwardness with what he mocked as “the vision thing” made Americans pine for Reagan’s poetry. And when Bush broke his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, he infuriated conservatives and undermined his standing as a man of integrity.

Bill Clinton’s presidency further boosted Reagan’s reputation. With Clinton, a Democrat, becoming the prince of peace and prosperity, finding a “Third Way,” celebrating that the “era of big government is over,” it was harder for Democrats to criticize Reagan for selfishness, materialism, or budget-cutting. Moreover, the Clinton-era boom made the Reagan-era deficits appear insignificant relative to the size of America’s economy, making Reagan’s economic decisions seem visionary. Finally, the contrast between Ronald Reagan’s old-fashioned respect for the White House – reputedly, he never removed his suit jacket when he was in the Oval Office – and Bill Clinton’s anything-goes adolescent behavior, even in the president’s inner sanctum, made Americans nostalgic for Reagan’s presence, and values.

The final step in the Reagan revival has occurred thanks to George W. Bush. Many Democrats despise this President Bush so deeply they often try to prove their enmity is not partisan by claiming they didn’t hate Reagan that intensely. Many forget the constant predictions that Reagan would outlaw abortion, restore racism, stop the feminist revolution, impoverish America, and lead the world into nuclear holocaust. Moreover, as Reagan aged so tragically, as his wife Nancy handled his Alzheimer’s disease so gracefully, the angers of the 1980s faded. By the time Reagan died in 2004, and thanks to a carefully choreographed funeral in Washington and California, conservatives remembered him as their modern-day George Washington, who launched their revolution; liberals grudgingly acknowledged, as Barack Obama did, that, as the man who was in the right place at the right time, he won the Cold War, restored America’s confidence, and became a transformational leader, unlike his immediate predecessors and successors.

While George W. Bush should not bank on watching his historical legacy rebound as quickly or as magically, the Reagan resurrection does teach essential lessons as we watch the presidential campaign. America is such a multi-dimensional country. The presidency is such an impossible job. History is such a fluid arbiter. As a result, the choices that voters make, while incredibly important and often epoch-making, are also difficult judgment calls which take years to evaluate properly or authoritatively. In fact, we historians make whatever business we do off of the continuing conversation about who accomplished what to make this nation great – or make it stumble.



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Michael Rahn Boyer - 5/21/2009

I diagree with the premise that "few would have predicted this Reagan revival." The Reagan agenda, personality & myth have dominated the political landscape since he left office.

Two landslide election victories & lets face it he would have won a 3rd term if he would have been a little younger but was able to get his VP elected President something that had not happened in 150 years.

Also, few cared about Iran/Contra then or now they just wanted it off the TV. We have had almost a 30 year bull market since Reagan and if people didn’t like the ’87 stock market crash or budget deficits they must really not like Bush 41, Bush 43 or Obama. Finally, reagan worked with what he had which was not much considering the media onslaught and democratic congress hounded him for 8 years. He took what he could get.


Tim Matthewson - 2/11/2008

Conservative have long been anxious to proclaim a conservative president the equal of the liberal icons of American history -- FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and the like. The closest that conservative have been able to come is President Ronald Reagan, and Reagan's main claim to fame has been the claims that Reagan won the Cold War.
Gil Troy attempts to assert the claims by putting it in the voice of the Democrats, saying that "liberals grudgingly acknowledged, as Barack Obama did, that, as the man who was in the right place at the right time, he won the Cold War, restored America’s confidence, and became a transformational leader, unlike his immediate predecessors and successors."

I doubt that "liberals" per se have been polled on the subject and I doubt whether if polled, liberals would agree that Reagan "won" the cold war.
The choice of the work "won" makes the claim sound both nationalistic and trivial, as if the US and SU were running a foot race and Reagan, representing the US, crossed the finish line first.
What happened in the SU was far more important than winning a foot race. It was communism that collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Communism does not work -- and it is clear that a large scale command economy was a foodhardy invention. It never could compete with the democratic capitalism of the U.S. That's why communism collapsed of it's own weight. In addition there was a generational change in the SU, with the emergence of a new generation that had not experienced WWII and the birth of communism. And the generational change explains the reason why communism collapsed when it did -- from internal causes. In fact it seems clear that, had the SU been democratic and capitalist, it never would have collapsed. Reagan has nothing to do with the the decision of Russians to reject communism and instead adopt a democratic and capitalist social order. The collapse of communism had profound consequences for Russia involving the complete transformation of Russia's economy and politics, and Reagan was irrelevant to the process.

Conservatives will have to look elsewhere for their great presidents!


Gil Troy - 2/7/2008

Sorry for the delay -- I was on the road with limited internet access (yes, I'm still pre-Blackberry)... I gave the speech before the Web was so ubiquitous, so they are probably not posted anywhere. I will search around and send them to you if I can find the remarks. But speaking of the Web, yes, you are correct about the growing value of two-way communication -- I also feel very strongly that professional conferences need to be updated to incorporate the Web (and stop being so boring). Rather than having the tedious ritual of 3 people droning on reading papers at sessions, people should post their papers on the Web, and at sessions, spend 5 to 7 minutes summarizing their papers, then having a discussion. I recently participated in a panel-like discussion at the AHA -- without even posting our papers- and the great success of the session stemmed from all the great questions and comments we received.


Maarja Krusten - 1/31/2008

You mentioned speaking to a conference in Montreal 10 years ago. Are your remarks posted online anywhere? I'd be interested in reading them. Your "Mr. and Mrs. President" book sounds intriguing, as well.

A side note or observation: Somehow, given the fact that you seem to take a bottoms up as well as a top down approach to looking at chief executives, I'm not surprised to see that you respond to comments posted on your blog! There is one historian who blogs on HNN who, judging by what I see when I look in on his blog, apparently never responds to anyone, regardless of whether they are a fellow academic or not.

Yet, as Jeremy Young noted, blogs can be a great source of two way communication and peer review, and not just from academic peers. I think historians are just starting to explore their uses. I'm interested to see how the younger generation of historians, the Facebook generation, if you will, makes use of blogs and wikis and other online resources for sharing thoughts and works in future years. Unfortunately, I don't have as many opportunities to read academic blogs as I would like. Yours drew my interest because of my background in working with Presidential records. I only became aware of the collegiality controversy described at
http://www.goactablog.org/blog/archives/2005/07/#a000043
when I was looking for something else online this week. It will be interesting to see how the forces described there play out, in terms of online presence, with historians coming of age professionally in the 21st century.

Again, many thanks for the courtesy of your reply.

Posted on personal time


Maarja Krusten - 1/31/2008

Many thanks for the good response! As it happens, I received your book from Amazon yesterday evening. I look forward to reading it, judging by the table of contents, the approach you seem to have taken looks very interesting!

As to bulk mail, I'm glad to hear that you've written about its value. For readers of your blog who have not done research at Presidential Libraries, there is a good explanation of bulk mail and sampling at
http://www.ford.utexas.edu/LIBRARY/guides/guidewhcf.asp

As Dr. Troy notes, this type of mail can provide interesting insights into public opinion. One gets glimpses into public reactions both in bulk mail and in some of the correspondence filed in White House Central Files Subject categories. (Enumerated also in the Ford Library link above.) The latter sometimes is split into Executive and General subcategories.

While still employed as an archivist at NARA, before I took a job elsewhere as an historian, I processed in the Nixon archival collection the White House Central Files: TR (Trips) category. While it is tempting for historians to turn to the EX (executive) rather than the GEN (general) subcategory in any WHCF file series, one actually gets insights into public opinion in the GEN subcategory. This was particularly the case in the TR file series, as the President's trips took him throughout the nation, triggering responses from people in various locations.

Those of you with access to the September 2001 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, may want to take a look at Maryanne Borrelli's article, "Competing Conceptions of the First Ladyship: Public Responses to Betty
Ford's 60 Minutes Interview." The author drew on public response mail at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Again, thanks for the courtesy of your reply -- much appreciated, given your busy schedule -- and I look forward to reading your book.


Gil Troy - 1/31/2008

Certainly, I do not believe Reagan was merely an empty suit, and the dynamics of Reagan-Carter were, indeed, far more complicated. I am very happy to hear about how much you value the bulk mail from constituents, because I, too, think they are very valuable sources. In researching my Reagan book, for example, I was very grateful I could read the reactions to presidential speeches, especially to Reagan's Iran-Contra mea culpa, rather than simply relying on public opinion polls or on TV commentaries. Bulk mail was even more helpful to me in an earlier book I wrote, "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons." There, in trying to assess what the public expected from a First Lady and from the First Couple, sifting through the bulk mail that came into the White House was even more important -- because there was far less of a sustained conversation about these issues in the media. Almost ten years ago, I addressed a conference of professional archivists meeting in Montreal. I made a plea for the preservation of these kinds of bulk mail letters, not just summaries -- and, to my surprise, many objected saying it was just not realistic to keep such voluminous material given the costs of storage, etc. So thanks for the question -- and for doing what you can to preserve important pieces of evidence regarding our collective national experience.


Gil Troy - 1/31/2008

Certainly, I do not believe Reagan was merely an empty suit, and the dynamics of Reagan-Carter were, indeed, far more complicated. I am very happy to hear about how much you value the bulk mail from constituents, because I, too, think they are very valuable sources. In researching my Reagan book, for example, I was very grateful I could read the reactions to presidential speeches, especially to Reagan's Iran-Contra mea culpa, rather than simply relying on public opinion polls or on TV commentaries. Bulk mail was even more helpful to me in an earlier book I wrote, "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons." There, in trying to assess what the public expected from a First Lady and from the First Couple, sifting through the bulk mail that came into the White House was even more important -- because there was far less of a sustained conversation about these issues in the media. Almost ten years ago, I addressed a conference of professional archivists meeting in Montreal. I made a plea for the preservation of these kinds of bulk mail letters, not just summaries -- and, to my surprise, many objected saying it was just not realistic to keep such voluminous material given the costs of storage, etc. So thanks for the question -- and for doing what you can to preserve important pieces of evidence regarding our collective national experience.


Maarja Krusten - 1/30/2008

In the sentence "For me, listening to citizens talk and reading about the hardships endured by those who lived in the inner city reminded me that there were two Washingtons – and more than one America" I left out the phrase "in the local newspapers." Obviously, what I meant was that since my local newspapers covered events in the Washington area, I had many opportunities to read about and to ponder the challenges and hardships faced by people less fortunate than I.

As to bluk mail,I was an archivist employed by the National Archives during the 1980s. My job was to work with Nixon's unreleased tapes and files. However, I also spent some time at the White House during the Reagan years, working on a bulk mail archival sampling project for NARA. So some of what ended up in the archival collections of the Reagan Presidential Library is due to my efforts and those of other colleagues who followed me on that and other archival projects.


Maarja Krusten - 1/30/2008

On a site where historians and history buffs and people interested in politics have the potential to come together, there is so much one could say about Reagan -- and about Carter. (HNN seems to me a site which, through no fault of Rick Shenkman’s, hasn’t lived up to its potential.) Reagan hardly was simply an empty suit who read from cue cards and Carter hardly an idiot.

You have to consider the national mood, how leaders gauged it, and why the winner appealed to voters. David Gergen (one of the more thoughtful former Presidential aides) wrote in 2000 that "The 1980 contest for the White House was the last truly good one the country has had because all three candidates -- Carter, Anderson and Reagan -- provided clear choices for the electorate. They said exactly what courses they intended to pursue if elected, didn't blur their differences, held down the mud slinging, and didn't sell their souls to their pollsters and handlers." There's a lot to ponder in why things changed in campaigning and governing after 1980. According to statements I've read, Gergen somewhat came to regret his role in creating the art of spin control during the 1980s. I've seen him critize later over reliance on it.

An Independent now for nearly 20 years, I still self identified as a Republican during the 1980s. I voted for Reagan twice. During the 1980s, I used public transportation (subway, buses) to go to work in the metropolitan Washington area. As I travelled to and from work, I often heard people talk about Reagan while he was President. Some supported him, others were afraid of his administration -- and of Republicans. In that pre-Internet age, overhearing those conversation provided an interesting means to see how small random groups of people viewed those in power. The 1980s was a period in which the crack cocaine epidemic took a huge toll in the inner city of Washington—not far from the White House where the President who talked about “morning in America” lived and worked. For me, listening to citizens talk and reading about the hardships endured bythose who lived in the inner city reminded me that there were two Washingtons – and more than one America.

Dr. Troy, I haven’t read your Reagan book yet although I’ve read many others about him. (Intrigued by your essay, I actually have your book on order right now and plan to read it once it arrives.) What sources did you use to gauge the national mood? Contemporaneous newspapers accounts? Results of public opinion polls? Letters from citizens to Reagan? Having worked with them as a former employee of NARA’s Nixon project, I’ve always thought that historians could learn a lot from the unsolicted bulk mail and routine queries submitted to a President by ordinary citizens. Some of the letters that ordinary people wrote to Nixon during the Vietnam War and Watergate were very moving. Now that historians rely on targeted Freedom of Information requests rather than on the results of what the National Archives refers to as “systematic processing,” I’m afraid that there is even less chance that historians will study such letters than before. But they do provide good glimpses into how issues looked to those outside the ivory tower or the punditocracy. They’re a representative sample of the thinking among the voters who put a President into office – or who voted against him.

As to public opinion, Jeremy Young has a thoughtful post up at Progressive Historians on Blogging and Peer Review.
http://www.progressivehistorians.com/2008/01/blogging-and-peer-review.html#comments

I like the part where Jeremy says of blogging, “In some ways, it's like teaching, but the goal is not to impart knowledge to people who are there for the purpose; it is to reach out into the community and begin a discussion on historical issues of importance. Though we utilize our training as academics, we take a very egalitarian role as facilitators of the discussion, not authorities who know the answers to society's problems. Most importantly, we bring historical knowledge to bear on topics of direct importance to ordinary people, which can include historical debates but is more likely to serve questions of interest to the community, whether political, cultural or social. In this kind of work, our "peers" are not merely academics but interested individuals from all walks of life.”


Robert Lee Gaston - 1/29/2008

You must remember that a year before Ronald Reagan was elected newspaper pundits and scholars were writing that the modern presidency was far too much for one man to take on and, that the office should be divided into domestic and national security components. They could not imagine that someone as bright and good as Jimmy Carter could have let things get so far out of hand.

At the time the typical mortgage loan was at around 18.5%, and our embassy personnel were being held hostage in Iran.

The military was also in shambles. For example, U.S. Navy warships ships were tied up at their docks because an acute shortage of senior noncommissioned officers left them unfit for combat. The army, air force and Marines had the same kinds, albeit less visible, problems. We were heading into a period of intense strain in US Soviet relations that was marked by a very large Soviet military build up, and growing regional conflicts in Africa and Latin America.

Ronald Reagan proved them very wrong. He took on the job with style and optimism, and restored a great deal of confidence to a lot of Americans.

If Ronald Reagan was not a great president then Jimmy Carter just proved that one could be a nuclear engineer and an idiot at the same time.


Carol V. Hamilton - 1/28/2008

It seems to me that Republicans are making Reagan into a hero-president because they didn't produce an iconic 20th-century leader like FDR or JFK or the martyred RFK. They don't want to talk about Ike, who warned of the military-industrial complex, and they don't want to invoke Teddy Roosevelt, who was in certain ways ("trust-busting") too progressive for their taste. Hoover, Coolidge, and Taft are only names to most Americans. And then there's the embarrassing problem of Richard Nixon and the Ford pardon. So the Republicans are reinventing Reagan, even though many of us remember another Ronald Reagan--the fellow who relied upon cue cards and confused (cf. Michael Rogin) history with the movies.