AMERICA IN THE AGE OF REAGAN
By John Ehrman
Yale, $27.50, 289 pages
REVIEWED BY ROBERT M. SMALLEY
Not often does any nation of great stature experience virtually a complete make-over within a period of eight years. Yet in John Ehrman’s new book, “The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan,” this is precisely what happened with the United States in the eight-year span between the 1981 departure of Jimmy Carter from the White House to the 1989 departure of Ronald Reagan from the presidency.
Mr. Carter’s four-year term had been marked by political ineptitude, deteriorating economic conditions, with inflation apparently out of control, and the loss of public confidence in the federal government’s ability to deal with the nation’s problems. As a prelude to what came next, Mr. Ehrman begins by reciting the familiar Ronald Reagan biography: Illinois to baseball to Hollywood to movies to California governor to president.
That told, Mr. Ehrman strikes out on his own with carefully researched and extensive accounts not just of what Ronald Reagan did but of what happened because of what he did, reflecting his leadership. The only thing Mr. Ehrman might have missed here was Reagan’s great public appeal as a man to whom confidence came easily, and whose energy and purpose were quickly in play.
That notwithstanding, this is where his book becomes a worthy addition to the nation’s expanding library of books about Ronald Reagan and his presidency. In the unfolding Reagan years, Mr. Ehrman sees a new America, engaged in major technological advances, sweeping revisions of the Tax Code, deregulation of major industries and a whirlwind of other achievements, many of them directly touching the entire nation.
Being a historian, economist and political analyst all together, Mr. Ehrman has engaged his subject with intellectual honesty and produced a fascinating tableau of the Reagan era, weaving a vast canvas of change throughout the Reagan years. In doing so, he underscores the changes and modernizations of America that took place during the Reagan years.
Mr. Ehrman defines Reagan as neither an intellectual nor a man given to deep reflection, although his handwritten letters and speeches showed that he had a fixed view on minimal government and liberal democracy as good, communism as bad, and he never lost his faith that a unique sense of destiny and optimism always made American different from any other country in the world.
Mr. Ehrman is able to take us through the undergrounds of the American economy during those years of America expanding, but he does not credit Reagan or the economy alone for the nation’s transformation.
As a skilled analyst of its workings, the American political process fascinates him and in scanning the political landscape, Mr. Ehrman delves back as far as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 loss, noting the impact of conservative “hard rhetoric” on secular and religious conservatives. His depiction of the Age of Reagan points to the errors of subsequent presidents who failed to recognize the impact of various Reagan successes, (bringing tax cuts into the political picture, for one).
Mr. Ehrman reveals his own recurring interest in the Democrats’ political decline, together with the parallel decline of liberalism. Of the hapless campaign of Michael Dukakis, he writes, “Dukakis paid a heavy price for the liberals’ failure to understand the new world of the 1980s.” Political attitudes, Mr. Ehrman continues, have shaped many of the attempts to measure the economic legacy of the Reagan years. Those who see problems largely in technical terms tend to be harsher in their judgments, often seeing the deficit as evidence of systemic breakdown and portending an inevitable disaster.
Economists who took a longer, broader view generally noted that the Reagan years had been a time of major change in American economic policy and understood that during the 1980s the structure of many industries had been transformed. To them, worries about the deficit were simply hand-wringing.
From the beginning, Mr. Ehrman states, Reagan as president worked consistently to nudge policy and politics to the right, but he was careful not to go beyond the limits of popular support. He accepted and worked within the gradualism of American politics, and took victories where he could, compromising and backing off where he had to.
The author adds that the voters never turned conservative in the 1980s, but because Reagan’s policies were generally successful, they rewarded him with their continued support. Even if ideology matters little in American politics, he notes, ideas are still important because they give people something to believe in. “Without a foundation of useful ideas,” he continues, “political success is difficult in the American system. During the 1980s, basic conservatives promoted tax-cutting and free markets, [while] liberals were unable to agree on [any] basic set of ideas.”
Mr. Ehrman describes Ronald Reagan as a shrewd politician of cautious instincts. For a brief moment in the fall of 1986, the author recalls, Reagan was basking in the glow of remarkable success, his approval ratings at an extraordinary level of 65-percent. And in its September 15 issue that year, Fortune Magazine noted that President Reagan had achieved almost every goal he had set for his presidency. Conservatives were optimistic.
The next two years, however, turned out to be a time of near disaster for Reagan, and great disappointment for conservatives. Many blamed the president and his management style. Some argued that while he paid close attention to matters that he cared about, in many other areas he was an indifferent manager. He had surrounded himself with good managers, men like Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz.
The progress of the president’s misfortunes, whatever the cause, whoever was responsible, are now difficult to read and recall, as they appear in Mr. Ehrman’s detailed, accurate account. Especially painful to Reagan was the loss of his appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
But Ronald Reagan had great resilience, and this reviewer notes that by the end of his second term he still could withstand the slings and arrows, and he still had the supporters to win the 1988 election for George Bush. Mr. Ehrman has given us a brilliant new book, fully deserving its place on the Reagan Bookshelf.
Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.