Getting Reagan Wrong

Article excerpt

Getting Reagan Wrong Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s by Gil Troy (PRINCETON, 417 PAGES, $29.95)

IF YOU MANAGE TO PLOW THROUGH all 347 pages of Gil Troy's Morning in America, you will finally discover that Troy thinks, or at least asserts, perhaps to mollify Reagan admirers who read his book, that Ronald Reagan "saved the presidency from irrelevance" and "remains the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt."

But you'd never know it if you only read the first 346 pages. True, every now and then Troy has a word of praise for Reagan, but much more frequent are his words of denigration. Indeed, an inordinate number of pages contain some sort of cheap shot, disparaging criticism, or belittling remark about "the greatest president" since FDR. For instance, in the sentence immediately preceding his proclamation of Reagan's greatness, Troy declares that Reaganism at its worst "perpetuated self-righteousness mixed with selfishness." And this is mild.

Troy writes as if he knew the persons about whom he is writing. But he doesn't. He would have us believe, for instance, that Reagan "thundered" when defending his administration against charges of racism and "bellowed" in stating his belief that an unborn child is still a human being. While Reagan on rare occasions raised his voice in anger, I doubt that any of those who worked with him when he was a governor, candidate, or president would agree that he was much of a thunderer or bellower. In fact, when Reagan reprimanded, which was seldom, he could better have been described as a low key reprimander.

Neither was Nancy Reagan a shrieker, as Troy also would have us believe. I know. If Nancy were a shrieker I, without question, would have been one of those shrieked at. Nancy had better ways of showing her anger.

Unfortunately Morning in America is filled with too many of Troy's opinions that he asserts as facts. But that should not be surprising since they come from an author who writes that "Tastes great! Less filling!" is a Budweiser beer commercial (see page 3), when in fact any football fan could have told him it was Miller Lite. And almost any Republican could have told him that "the vision thing" was a George H.W. Bushism, not a Reaganism. The record will also show that Ed Rollins was not the White House political director in 1981 and that Jimmy Carter, though he may have studied nuclear physics, was not a "nuclear engineer." None of these is a serious mistake but taken together they get one to wondering what other mistakes might be scattered through the book.

More disturbing than the mistakes or the mischaracterization of Reagan as a bellower and thunderer are Troy's all too frequent criticisms of Reagan, both as a person and as president. Here are some: "Reagan's anything goes ethos," Reagan "often confused great wealth with great virtue," "The childlike 'Being There' dimension about Reagan's saccharine political appeal." One paragraph pretty much epitomizes what Troy thinks of Reagan and the Reagan decade of the '80s:

Overall, Reagan's 1980s accelerated the social solvents he blamed on the 1960s and 1970s. Going from the "Me Decade" to the "Mine All Mine Decade," citizens in Reagan's America felt less engaged, less constrained, less interdependent than ever. In the individualism he worshipped, the hypocrisy he embodied, and the politicization of moral discourse he facilitated, Reagan further undermined the traditional mores he so proudly hailed.

And it's not as if this were an isolated criticism. For instance: "Reagan came across as stupid or reckless or both." "Reagan's sloppiness and extremism." Reagan "ambled" into office. Reagan was "maestro of materialism." Reagan ushered in "a new era of greed and ostentation." "Reagan's great contradiction: a desire to control crime but not guns."

There is an inconsistency to Troy that is bothersome. Too often he wants to have it both ways. For instance, he says that despite his overwhelming victory in 1980 Reagan "lacked a mandate for change. …