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Reagan: American Icon

Dec. 28, 2016

Reviewed by Jason Saltoun-Ebin

Reagan: American Icon

By Iwan Morgan (I.B. Tauris, 2016)

Are we still in the “Age of Reagan”? The election of Barack Obama 20 years after Reagan left office appeared to have closed that chapter in American politics. The American people, and the Electoral College for that matter, in that election put the first African American into the White House and, probably just as significant when looking at the historical arch of American politics, the first true left-of-center politician since perhaps LBJ. 

While Reagan embraced conservative values intent on restricting access to abortions and defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, Obama essentially used a wrecking ball to destroy the “family values” conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s through supporting increased access to abortions and later same-sex marriage. But Obama, for all he did for progressive values, just couldn’t close the lid on the Reagan Era, which likely would have required either the subsequent election of another true progressive POTUS or a majority of progressives on the United States Supreme Court.

Iwan Morgan, Professor of U.S. Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London, has been teaching and writing about American politics from across the pond for over 40 years. His just released book, “Reagan: American Icon”, argues that “Reagan would probably not have felt at home in the polarized partisan environment of the twenty-first century” and that although “both Reagan and Trump ran against government and promised to return America to greatness … Reagan grounded his appeal in his long-espoused ideas about freedom” while “Trump lacks a philosophical core.”

“The two also differed diametrically in their appreciation of how demography was reshaping the electorate,” Morgan writes. “Just before winning a respectable 34 percent share of their votes in 1984, Reagan remarked: ‘Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it yet.’ … Trump, by contrast, seemed intent on causing Latinos offense with his tough stance against renewed amnesty and deterring illegals from entering the United States.”

Morgan, like many who took on Reagan before him, struggled with where he stands not so much on the Reagan presidency (which he calls “consequential”), but on his own opinion of Ronald Reagan. “More often than not, biographers develop a more positive view of their subject as a consequence of engaging in detailed study of a life,” Morgan admits. “Accordingly, this volume comes to conclusions that once would have surprised the author, who shared the conventional left-liberal suspicion of Reagan’s competence and conservatism in the 1980s.” Morgan continued, "The Reagan this biography portrays is complex rather than one-dimensional; someone who benefited from having a variety of careers before entering politics; a deep thinker if not an original one; a conservative but also a pragmatist; a committed anti-communist who was dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons; a passionate advocate of freedom who aligned the United States with repressive regimes for Cold War advantage in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; and an eternal optimist about his country’s future who could not empathize with disadvantaged groups needing the assistance of government to get by in 1980s America."

Morgan acknowledges that there were areas that Reagan came up short, his response to the AIDS crisis and out-of-control defense spending to name just two, but spends so little time on those subjects that readers without a fine-tooth comb are likely to completely overlook the critiques. Morgan, for example, notes that Reagan “did not always live up to the ideals he espoused” but quickly lets him off the hook because, he writes, “perfection is not a human quality.” Perfection may not be a human quality, but it is precisely the willingness to excuse imperfection from our leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, that opens the door for imperfections to fester into bigger problems, like sending American Marines into Beirut in the early 1980s without a clear mission.  

Historians looking at the 2016 American election may very well determine that the election turned on values. Reagan, for Morgan, became an American icon by “giving voice to his nation’s best values … the fundamental qualities of decency, optimism, and belief in individual potential inculcated in the small-town Midwest of the early twentieth century to the White House of the late twentieth century.”  If that’s the case, the values that won out in 2016 surely were not those of Reagan’s childhood or even likely the values of traditional conservatives. In fact, it’s not even clear what values Trump supporters share which may explain why Trump’s election could end up keeping Reagan-era conservatism alive just long enough for Trump to be at the center of the last chapter in the Age of Reagan. 

Highly recommended, “Reagan: American Icon” turns a complex subject into a readable narrative suitable for anyone interested in the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Naturally I wanted to pick Morgan’s brain a little more and he graciously agreed to respond to a few questions.

Five questions for Iwan Morgan about his work on the life and times of Ronald Reagan.

 1. You titled the book “American Icon” but isn’t it true that in much of Europe Ronald Reagan has really also become a European Icon for his efforts to defeat communism, unite Germany and remove the iron curtain that had blanketed Europe since the end of World War II?

I suggest in the book that insofar as Europe was concerned Reagan was one of the two great 'presidential liberators' of the twentieth century.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped to free Western Europe from the grip of Nazism in World War II; Reagan helped to free Eastern Europe from Communism.  I still see him as an American icon rather than a European icon, however.  Reagan's belief in the quintessential American ideal of freedom endowed him with certainty that Soviet Communism would eventually collapse because it could not stifle forever the basic human desire to be free.  Other Western leaders in the 1980s were so-called foreign policy realists who believed that Soviet military power would preserve Communism in Eastern Europe far into the future.  In contrast to them, Reagan was convinced that stepping up political, economic and psychological pressure on the Soviet Empire would bring about its demise.  Critical to this belief was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland which continued to operate underground after a military regime took power in that country in late 1981 with orders from Moscow to crack down on dissent.  Reagan's thoughts on this score are outlined in the fascinating exchanges in his working lunch with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Casaroli on December 15, 1981 (a document posted on The Reagan Files)

2. You took on not just the Reagan presidency but also his whole life and did so in just over 300 pages. A remarkable achievement in many ways considering historians have spent over 1,000 pages on the same subject. How were you able to do so? Was there some area you wish you could have explored more?

I wanted to write about Reagan's entire life because it encompassed so many aspects of America's twentieth century: a youth spent in the small-town Midwest, once the backbone of the nation; careers in three forms of cultural media - radio, movies and television - in their golden eras; a supporter of FDR when liberalism was ascendant, he then journeyed rightward with the emergent conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s; he becomes governor of California shortly after the Golden State replaced New York as the most populous state, thereby heralding the growth of what political historians would label the Sunbelt region of the Southwest and South; and finally, of course, a consequential president who did much to move American politics to the right, promote the Republican party to parity with the Democrats, and lay the foundations for ending the Cold War on American terms. How to put all that into some 340 pages of text (and a total word length of 150,000 when notes are included) was the greatest challenge I have faced in a forty-year career of writing history.  If I managed to do so successfully, it was only by keeping it clear in my mind that I was not primarily writing for fellow academics but doing so mainly to capture the interest of lay readers who may not have the time or the inclination to read massive tomes. Of course, I want other scholars to think well of the book, but I believe that historians have an obligation to sometimes write for a wider audience, rather than just each other, in order to spread understanding about the relevance and significance of their discipline.  That said, there were subjects that I wished I could have explored in greater length than I was able to in my biography.  Chief among them were Reagan's momentous governorship of California, which only receives one chapter, his very significant de-regulatory policies as president, and his response to the AIDS crisis.  

 3. You called President Reagan’s ability to negotiate the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe, not only his greatest achievement but the greatest achievement of any American president since 1945. Yet many Americans at the time thought President Reagan was wrong to negotiate at all with the Soviet Union on arms reductions.  What was the mood in Europe and particularly G.B. during these negotiations? Wasn’t Prime Minister Thatcher reluctant to lose so much deterrence?

I think Reagan's role in securing the INF treaty of 1987 was a remarkable one.  He had to battle opposition from three groups at home.  With help from Secretary of State George Shultz and other supportive officials, he faced down internal opposition within his own administration from hawks in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the CIA.  He also held firm against critics in the broader foreign policy establishment who accused him of surrendering America's military superiority to negotiate with a  powerful adversary - chief among them were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both of  whom conducted public campaigns against the INF.  The third source of opposition were the conservative organizations tied to the New Right, who had once regarded Reagan as their champion but now thought he had gone soft on  communism. Meanwhile some of America's staunchest allies worried that he was abandoning the strategic doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which in their eyes had underpinned peace in Europe since 1945.  Chief among them was Margaret Thatcher.  She was outraged to discover that Reagan had been willing to eliminate all classes of nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit of 1986 - agreement on this had only foundered over Soviet insistence that the Strategic Defense Initiative should also be terminated as part of any deal. To win Thatcher's support for INF, Reagan guaranteed he would support US sale of Trident submarine-based anti-ballistic weaponry to modernize the UK's independent deterrent.

 4. In terms of Reagan’s presidency, you note that he left a complex legacy yet you rank him as a “consequential president” along with Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, up there with the best of the American presidents. No president, or prime minister for that matter, can be perfect, and Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan certainly made their mistakes. But shouldn’t they be judged on the consequences of their achievements? Other than the 1987 INF Treaty, what do you see as Reagan’s greatest achievements? Where do you think he came up short?

 I intentionally used the label 'consequential president' because I did not want to assess Reagan in terms of conventional presidential rankings like 'great' 'near great,' and so forth that tend to rely on subjective score-carding. Reagan was consequential because he did much to change America's course in the 1980s and beyond.  It is not claiming too much to say that US history would have been very different with another president at the helm in this period.  Reagan was very consequential in a host of ways, not all of them beneficial to America.  On the plus side were: his reduction of Cold War tensions and nuclear-arms reduction negotiations; his renewal of the presidency after the decline of its leadership effectiveness in the 1970s; the restoration of national confidence in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation; his role in revitalizing the Republican party; his commitment to tax reform  in 1986; and his eschewal of political polarization through willingness to compromise with the opposition Democrats on a range of legislative issues.   On the negative side were: the massive 1980s budget deficits that did much to distort the American economy, indirectly hasten the decline of US manufacturing, and create a legacy of huge public indebtedness;  the free-market economic policies that were instrumental in spurring the growth of   income inequality, which had hitherto been in steady  decline throughout the twentieth century; his incapacity to reach out to African Americans because he did not understand the need for a benevolent state to combat racism; and his revival of the imperial presidency in the Iran-Contra imbroglio.   All this leads me to conclude in my book that Reagan's presidency was highly consequential in terms of how it changed America.  It depends on one's point of view, however, whether the changes he instituted are in sum considered to have changed America for the better or not. 

 5. Last, as an outsider having studied and written about American politics for lets just say a few decades, and as a Brit going through your own political turmoil, do you want to offer any thoughts on what the American Founding Father’s got right and what could be improved on? Is there anything like an Electoral College in the British system? Could Great Britain be in the position of having someone come to power that did not reflect a majority of the popular vote? 

America has been a central part of my life since 1973 - the year I was first appointed to a teaching position in the UK.  It is for me a country of endless fascination in terms of its history, politics and culture.  Throughout my time in the academy I have told cohorts of undergraduates that the American Constitution is a remarkable document given that it is only 3000 words long in original format (about the size of a student essay) plus another 4000 for its 26 amendments. It has survived so long because it is definite in principle but flexible in detail, which allows for significant reinterpretation over time.  The most obvious shortcoming in the original had to do with its silence on racial equality, an issue dealt with in Amendments 14 and 15 that were not interpreted in an egalitarian manner from the 1890s to the 1960s - and are now threatened with renewed erosion of voting rights. On the issue of the Electoral College, the inability of the candidate winning the popular-vote majority to gain an Electoral College majority in two of the last four presidential elections is worrying, but its constitutional abolition any time soon is unlikely.  It might be salutary to note that the UK system is undemocratic by comparison to the US system.  A government conventionally comes to power in the UK by winning a majority of the country's 650 parliamentary constituencies, but this has not translated into a popular-vote majority in any election since World War II.  Because we have a first-past-the-post system and usually have 5 or more parties competing with each other, a plurality rather than a majority vote suffices to come to power.  The Conservatives won a parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election with just 37 percent of the vote - and there is only a limited system of checks and balances to correct such a democratic deficit.  So if America is going to change its electoral system, it not should look over here for guidance on how to do so! 

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016