The Age of Anxiety
R onald Reagan did have a Vision Thing, a picture of a glorious American future drawn from a mythic American past. He called it the Shining City on a Hill, and it had been his life's work as a public man -- a tapestry of fact, fiction, rumor, hope, and dream stitched into one heroic whole. It served him well for most of his two terms not because of its resemblance to reality, which was slight, but because he himself seemed to believe so passionately in it. It was only when he had walked away, leaving the keys to the city in the hopelessly prosy hands of his successor, that it came to be seen more nearly as it was: the Gipper's last movie set, all gleaming facades propped up by temporary carpentry and borrowed cash.
What his reign had postponed was the gathering crisis of American politics, a leveling wave of cynicism that put Reagan's own place in history at risk along with his heir's future in office. The golden age he once seemed to promise had turned out to be merely gilded; it was, as the Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips argued, a go-go period uncomfortably like those of the 1880s and the 1920s -- a time of pyramiding wealth bought, or borrowed, at great economic and political cost to the many. Its biggest beneficiaries were the top 1 percent of the population, who had raked in 60 percent of the new money. Its price was an explosion of debt at every level, from credit cards to junk bonds to treasury paper to bad bank loans -- and a real economy crawling along at its slowest rate of growth since the Great Depression.
Most ordinary Americans had in fact stood still or slipped back during their eight-year tenancy in the Shining City, and with the turn into the '90s, the discovery that prosperity hadn't meant prosperity for everybody gave rise to an acrid new politics of blame. The new morning in America was as hot with rebuke as judgment day, with Reagan standing alongside his protégé in the dock. The Gipper's fall from his great eminence happened with surprising force and velocity. Three years after his departure from Washington, he was history, and not as one of its heroes. He had shrunk in stature to Jimmy Carter's size and