The age of Reagan : a history, 1974-2008 /

Wilentz, the eminent Princeton historian, argues that for the past thirty-five years U.S. political history has been defined by the new politics of conservatism brokered by its major powerhorse, Ronald Reagan. Following an analysis of Reagan's presidency, Wilentz concludes that Reagan not only...

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Main Author: Wilentz, Sean.
Format: Book
Published:New York, NY : Harper, c2008.
Edition:1st ed.
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The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008 Chapter One Memories of the Ford Administration John Updike's satirical novel Memories of the Ford Administration , which was published in 1992, concerns a stumblebum, would-be promiscuous historian named Alfred Clayton. While struggling to finish a sympathetic biography of James Buchanan--one of the few presidents in all of American history more vilified than Nixon--Clayton agrees to write, as a distraction, a chronicle of his impressions and memories of Gerald Ford's presidency. Clayton's recollections revolve around the Boston Red Sox and sex--delightful sex, desperate sex, and default sex. "What had been unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory," he writes. But what about Gerald Ford? The politics of the mid-1970s had barely seemed to intrude on Clayton's consciousness. "For that matter, was there ever a Ford Administration?" he asks. "Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty." Post-Watergate America lingers in Americans' memories as a jumble of bad clothing fads, shag haircuts, an embarrassingly puerile popular culture, and political stasis. The economy was in deep trouble. Much of what remained of the idealistic social movements of the 1960s descended into the mad violence of grouplets such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, before burning out altogether. The frenzied pursuit of consumerist pleasures--through electronic gadgets, mail-order rendezvous, and other life-enhancers--gave rise to what the journalist Tom Wolfe called "the Me Decade" and the historian Christopher Lasch judged more severely as a culture of narcissism. The poetic songwriter Bob Dylan, who had survived the 1960s and somehow kept his head, no longer heard freedom blowing in the wind; he heard something mindless and sinister: Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull, From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol. Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth, You're an idiot, babe. It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe. Dylan could have been berating a lover, the entire country, or both. Yet there were also fresh breezes, or what seemed to be. In 1975, a dropout from Harvard named Bill Gates joined up with a friend, Paul Allen, to found a company they originally called "Micro-soft," with the utopian motto, "A computer on every desk and in every home." The feminist movement, the strongest outgrowth of the activism of the 1960s, was on the march following the Supreme Court's decision in 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade , to strike down state laws that criminalized abortion. (A year earlier, Congress had sent an Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban civil inequality based on sex, to the states; and by 1977, thirty-five states had approved the amendment, leaving only three more to make it the law of the land.) Out of the morass of popular culture emerged, in 1976-1977, a televised series called Roots , on the ordeals and triumphs of one supposedly representative black family, beginning with the enslavement of an African, Kunta Kinte, in the eighteenth century. Based on a wildly successful book by the black writer Alex Haley, Roots attracted 130 million viewers to its final episode and appeared to be a milestone, marking how Americans had begun laying aside the racial stereotypes and hatreds that had disfigured their history. (Only later did charges surface that Haley had fabricated portions of the book that were purportedly true.) New departures were also stirring elsewhere on the fragmented cultural and political scene. The feminists' success alarmed cadres of conservatives, including Goldwater's campaigner Phyllis Schlafly, who seized the opportunity to drum up a movement that would help revive the right and rally it around cultural issues. In 1973, another conservative activist, Paul Weyrich, established a new think tank, the Heritage Foundation. With Heritage at its disposal, Weyrich hoped that the political right would at last win the battle over ideas and policy planning long ceded to the liberals. Even more prominent, although little understood at the time, were the struggles in Washington over how to govern after Richard Nixon's downfall. The press corps paid the most attention to liberal congressional Democrats who, emboldened by sweeping victories in the elections of 1974, moved to retrieve the power they said Nixon had usurped, especially over foreign policy. The White House did its best to fend off these efforts, while it battled Congress over pressing economic issues. But the Ford administration, which very much existed, was also riven from within--and haunted by Nixon's political ghost. Ford himself was determined to govern from the ideological center: he knew this would dismay conservatives and, in some instances, leave them "sputtering." Inside the White House, though, a faction consisting of former Nixon hands faced off against more moderate elements, pushed the administration to the right, and tried to create a mainstream conservative alternative to the Goldwater hard-liners, now led by Ronald Reagan. While they counseled a fight to the finish with Congress over economic issues, conservatives in the White House undermined the stature and power of the most celebrated holdover from the Nixon era, Secretary of State Kissinger, whose so-called realist approaches to domestic and world affairs they considered tired, timid, and unprincipled. Disgruntled traditional "cold war Democrats," who would soon be known as neoconservatives, also attacked Kissinger's policies. Reagan and the Republican right, meanwhile, regarded Ford's White House with dismay and, finally, with disgust. Overshadowed by Watergate while facing new and bewildering problems at home and abroad, the Ford administration was torn by competing ideologies and political agendas. Its tribulations would leave a lasting mark on the next thirty years of American history. A modest and easily underestimated man, Gerald Ford had gained the presidency not because of any executive expertise but because of his skills as a congressional insider in the backslapping, hard-driving style that once dominated Washington politics. His calm demeanor and reputation for integrity initially won him great credit from the Washington press corps as exactly the kind of leader the country needed after Watergate. Before long, though, commentators of differing persuasions began questioning whether he was up to the job. The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008 . Copyright © by Sean Wilentz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.