The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

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At the Academy, Wilentz reevaluated the political history of antislavery in the United States from the American Revolution to the dawn of the Civil War.

Reckoning with Reagan

Current interpretations of American antislavery focus on the actions of radical abolitionists and the slaves themselves. While they have enlarged the scope of investigation, these studies have also had the unfortunate effect of slighting mainstream antislavery politics and politicians, including political abolitionists.

At best, political antislavery leaders come across as compromised men who took up the cause when pushed to do so by the heroic radicals. Yet virtually all of the arguments that led to emancipation arose among Jeffersonians and Federalists decades before the rise of the radical abolitionists. Those arguments informed political struggles at the state, local, and national levels, which, Wilentz argues, historians have overlooked.

His aim is to restore antislavery politics and politicians to the center of the history of American antislavery — and to the history of American politics generally. The Berlin Journal. The phenomenon of "stagflation" - rising inflation paired with rising unemployment - refuted the basic assumptions of Keynesianism, challenging the conventional wisdom of the liberal establishment and deepening voters' distrust of the government.

In foreign policy, Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis sapped the country's confidence in its ability to project power overseas.

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The Right in the Rearview Mirror

But it was Watergate, Wilentz argues, that defined the political atmosphere enabling Reagan's rise. Nixon left Americans severely disillusioned about their government, and, according to Wilentz, fostered the growth of a new "anti-politics. In Wilentz's account, Reagan's candidacy capitalized on a craving for national renewal after two of the most traumatic decades in recent history.

While sharply critical of Reagan's tenure, Wilentz also acknowledges its accomplishments. He credits Reagan with forging a close friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev over the objections of administration hard-liners, building a partnership that contributed to the end the Cold War. As Reagan retired in a blaze of Cold War glory, Wilentz describes how the outgoing president's legacy both helped and hurt the elder George Bush.

Bush enjoyed the blessing of a popular president but suffered the consequences of his former boss's excesses. Enormous deficits from the Reagan years caused a major budget confrontation between Bush and Congress , eventually forcing the president to renege on his campaign promise by raising taxes, a move that enraged his own party.

The Long Shadow

The ensuing recession severely weakened Bush, creating a political opening that led to Bill Clinton 's election in But after Wilentz's rich portrait of Reagan's reign, these latter portions seem rushed and overextended. Drifting from his main theme, the author recapitulates familiar events from recent history such as the Clinton impeachment and the lead-up to the Iraq war, with only intermittent references to Reagan.

As Wilentz brings his story up to the present, his analysis also loses its evenhandedness. He is curiously soft on Clinton, attributing the president's problems to Republican scandal-mongering and not to lapses in leadership. Clinton's reluctance to stop the Rwandan genocide and his foot-dragging on Bosnia receive little attention here.

But on the origins and intricacies of the Reagan revolution, "The Age of Reagan" is fascinating. Wilentz explains how a year-old former actor from California built a powerful political machine out of evangelical Christianity, anticommunism and Wall Street. His heirs would take his vision to new extremes, inheriting his contradictions while adding some of their own.

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