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The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 Hardcover – May 6, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Distinguished Princeton historian Wilentz-winner of a Bancroft Prize for The Rise of American Democracy-makes an eloquent and compelling case for America's Right as the defining factor shaping the country's political history over the past 35 years. Wilentz argues that the unproductive liberalism of the Carter years was a momentary pause in a general tidal surge toward a new politics of conservatism defined largely by the philosophy and style of Ronald Reagan. Even Bill Clinton, he shows, tacitly admitted the ascendance of many Reaganesque core values in the American mind by styling himself as a centrist "New Democrat" and moving himself and his party to the right. Wilentz postulates Reagan as the perfect man at the ideal moment, not just ruling his eight years in the White House, but also casting a long shadow on all that followed (a shadow, one might add, still being felt in the Republican presidential campaign today). While examining in detail the low points of Reagan's presidency, from Iran-Contra to his initial belligerence toward the Soviet Union, Wilentz concludes in his superb account that Reagan must be considered one of the great presidents: he reshaped the geopolitical map of the world as well as the American judiciary and bureaucracy, and uplifted an American public disheartened by Vietnam and the grim Carter years. While much has been written by Reagan admirers, Wilentz says, "his achievement looks much more substantial than anything the Reagan mythmakers have said in his honor." 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)
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From Booklist

Wilentz interprets Reagan’s presidency as being as consequential as any tenure. His classifying it with Jefferson’s and FDR’s may shock liberal critics of Reagan and conservatism, but consider the source: Wilentz is a prominent liberal historian best remembered publicly for denouncing Republicans’ impeachment of President Clinton. Casting a political narrative, Wilentz posits Reagan’s achievement of his intentions, such as slashing tax rates and confronting the Soviet Union, as the foundation for his long-term historical significance. As important as Reagan’s aims, the enervation by 1980 of what Reagan opposed, New Deal–Great Society liberalism, occupies a prominent place in Wilentz’s story. His attention to intra-Democratic politics, which were particularly fractious during Jimmy Carter’s incumbency, highlights the souring of the American electorate, in its mood of post-Vietnam, stagflationary angst, on the Democratic Party and the electorate’s receptiveness to Reagan’s flag-waving, small-government precepts. Tracking the oscillations in Reagan’s popularity and extending analysis of Reagan’s influence through the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II presidencies, Wilentz’s critique compels readers, whatever their political persuasion, to come to grips with the Gipper. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (May 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060744804
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060744809
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #598,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 94 people found the following review helpful By Constant Reader on June 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The extreme division among the reviewers of this book reflects a challenge Wilentz notes early on in The Age of Reagan: that it's very hard to write a recent history that anyone will consider objective in any way. His response has been to produce a book that, I think, will manage to disappoint readers on both sides of the political spectrum. Unlike most of the writing on the Reagan era so far-- which has been frankly hagiographic-- Wilentz pays attention to the scandals and missteps of the administration, including a lively portrayal of Iran-contra and a walkthrough of the S&L scandal. He mixes praise and critique in his portrayal of Reagan; later presidents, including the Bushes, do not fare as well. The reviews here make it clear how unwilling conservative readers are to revisit the S&L scandal years, or to confront the fate of Reaganomics... and yet liberal readers are unlikely to be completely comfortable with Wilentz's persistent focus on presidential politics and foreign policy as *the* defining elements of the age of Reagan. The fate of the poor, of women's programs, and of education under Reagan are not mentioned; some may join me in gaping at his description of the first Bush as an environmentalist who quickly stepped up after the Exxon Valdez incident (with the spill "cleaned up by mid-September"-- actually, Sean, the clean-up is still going on). Clinton's shenanigans with Monica rate dozens of pages; Anita Hill gets a paragraph. In other words, conservatives are unlikely to like everything this book includes, while liberals will probably be ruffled by what this book leaves out.

Beyond that, there are a couple of wider issues, centering around Wilentz's yen for sweeping statements.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Giordano Bruno on May 29, 2009
Format: Paperback
Nothing in Sean Wilentz's history of American politics from 1974 to 2008 took me by surprise, except perhaps the author's willingness to give Ronald Reagan the recognition due for his political savvy and charisma. Most Reagan denigrators -- and I admit that I have been one -- have regarded him as a hyped-up Howdy Doody, a useful front for 'conservative' kingmakers. Wilentz actually credits Reagan with being his own man, the master of his own White House, and furthermore with being more flexible and open to pragmatic compromise than either his coterie of advisors or his latter-day disciples. Withholding judgment of his 'ends', Wilentz portrays Reagan as indeed the dominant figure of his Age, far more a man of 'means' than the three presidents who preceded him or the three who followed. Discussing the diplomacy that led to the INF treaty in 1987 as well as other steps toward nuclear disarmament, Wilentz writes:

"To complete that triumph of diplomacy and goodwill, Reagan had to withstand the criticism of many who had informed and reinforced his views of the Soviets for decades but who lacked his own understanding with Gorbachev and other reformers now in control of the Kremlin, a great change was at hand. Call it a triumph of character or idealism or perceptiveness or "wishful thinking" (in George Will's term), or some combination of these. But Reagan's ability to dispense with dogma (including his own) and negotiate with Gorbachev helped bring an end to a nuclear arms race that had terrified the world for forty years. ... Reagan deserves posterity's honor for not adhering stubbornly to the ideas and strategies of cold war conservatism and neoconservatism...
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91 of 113 people found the following review helpful By James Wu on May 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
First off, and for the record: no, I did not vote for Al Gore in the 2000 election. Now, having said that: I thought this was a well-written and thought-provoking book by a preeminent historian, and a great example of 'partisan' history (although I think it's also fair to say that Wilentz does make an honest effort at balanced analysis, and of course his forthright thesis is right there in the title: Reagan, for good or ill, defined his--and our--American era). This book is also far better than the Reagan hagiographies cluttering most bookstores (which I couldn't even be bothered to read, and it would seem that way to even the casual browser, as they're mostly picture books anyway). But Wilentz is also balanced, and even, dare I say, nuanced in his approach to both the man and his time.

You may agree with some of the author's points, and disagree with others, but I assure you, the book itself is very well written, and certainly worth your time and energy to invest in. I bought my copy in a bookstore (remember bookstores?) on an impulse, and I was not disappointed--actually, I finished it in a matter of days. Normally, that would be that, but when I looked at this page on Amazon and saw only one one-star review, I decided to step in. This book is NOT as lopsided or unfair as that reviewer would have you believe, and what's more, the reviewer confessed to not finishing the book. I don't know how to do that, myself, even with books I loathe. But I certainly wouldn't have the audacity to publish a review of a book I didn't finish: not only is that unfair to the author, but it speaks of a mindset that does not allow for the hearing of both sides of an issue. 'Partisan,' anyone?

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to start Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. And if someone had told me that I would be reading two serious history books featuring Reagan and Nixon in their titles two or three weeks ago, I would have raised an eyebrow. And yet, here I go.
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