Conservative Camelot

By Reviewed by Kevin Phillips
Sunday, May 4, 2008


A History, 1974-2008

By Sean Wilentz

Harper. 564 pp. $27.95

Despite its heft, this book is too short. That is because the subject matter -- U.S. political history -- is so sweeping and the period dealt with -- nearly four decades -- is so long.

The title of Sean Wilentz's book grandly proclaims 1974 to 2008 as the Age of Reagan. But he notes right away that, absent Watergate, the country's late-20th-century move to the right could have been the Age of Nixon. His extension of the Reagan era through 2008 is also debatable, and his coverage of the George W. Bush years is necessarily incomplete, a limitation he acknowledges.

So this is not a book for the ages. It includes a persistent anti-Republican tenor, which an Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (to whom the book is dedicated) would not have indulged, despite having more or less similar feelings. Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, has made no secret of his political sympathies: He has actively supported Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy and accused Barack Obama of running a "deeply dishonest" primary campaign. Two years ago, he argued in an article for Rolling Stone that the current President Bush is "in serious contention" for the title of worst president in history. Reading The Age of Reagan, one wonders whether his singular praise for Bill Clinton's presidency is principally the judgment of a historian or of a party activist.

Nevertheless, Wilentz deserves kudos for biting off a challenge that few historians would have dared to undertake. All too many U.S. political chronicles have been written by specialists who present events in four- or eight-year segments minimally encumbered by a larger economic, political or historical context. By contrast, Wilentz goes for sweep, and in a number of ways achieves it.

He is correct, for example, that although a major trend to the right in U.S. national politics began in the 1960s, Democratic leaders time after time found some reason for perceiving an ongoing or restored liberal dominance -- in 1974, in 1982, in 1986-88 and at both the beginning and conclusion of the Clinton era. Reagan was the most successful Republican president of the 1960-2008 period, which can reasonably support naming the larger era after him. Most leaders on the right regard the man as their great hero, and his era -- the first term, in particular -- as the conservative equivalent of Camelot.

Wilentz is also reasonably correct when he says the unfolding conservative zeitgeist of late-20th-century America produced a string of excesses from Watergate and Vietnam down to the George W. Bush years.

On the other hand, by formally beginning his narrative in 1974, he manages to avoid any serious analysis of the three-tiered Democratic failure under Lyndon Johnson -- a bungled war, unleashed inflation and rioting cities -- or the debacle of the presidential nomination and defeat of George McGovern in 1972, which split the Democratic party like a ripe melon. Quite a few problems of the last three decades also trace back to the exhaustion of American establishment liberalism as either the nation's governing party or as a tough-minded opposition. Eighty percent of Americans feel that this country is on the wrong track, but both parties took turns laying it.

Besides overlooking these weaknesses, Wilentz also falls short by under-emphasizing economic policies and trends. The United States is now caught in the unraveling of a two-decade buildup of debt and speculation during which the financial sector ballooned to unprecedented economic domination, capturing some 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

True, Reagan and both Bush presidents played prominent roles in this buildup, but so did Alan Greenspan, Bill Clinton and Clinton's treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin. Because capital gains tax receipts from the overheated stock market in the late 1990s briefly suppressed the U.S. budget deficit, little attention has been paid to the massive Clinton-era increase in private debt, especially borrowing by domestic financial institutions. In tandem with periodic financial bailouts, this debt helped to fuel the bubble that led to a market bust in 2000. Clinton also promoted the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, thereby allowing banks to combine with insurance companies, brokerage firms, mortgage lenders and just about everything else. In short, the financial framework that is failing us today is the product of a quarter century of bipartisan decision-making.

It is also useful to note the author's emphasis on impeachment. He necessarily deals with Nixon's, but the book spends a dozen pages dissecting the case for impeaching Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair, which the Democrats ultimately decided wasn't a good strategy. The impeachment of Clinton is the one he finds deplorable. Surprisingly, he does not delve into the desire of some Democrats to impeach George W. Bush in 2006-07, conceivably because Wilentz feels that, beginning with the Clinton episode, impeachment has gotten out of hand. Probably it has. But future historians reflecting on the period may have to consider impeachment campaigns as part of a repeated aim-taking at presidents seen as failures or scandal perpetrators. Five of our presidents since the '60s have been the subject of impeachment proposals or public discussions: Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush. What is the angst of the Age of Reagan that has brought politics to such a boil? My own view is that 30 or 40 years from now, historians may well call it the Age of Disillusionment.

Nobody could have fully developed the ins and outs of these troubled years in just 500-some pages, and Wilentz has not produced a model of chronological exactitude or amplification that others will feel obliged to follow. He does, however, deserve considerable credit for blazing a brave trail in the direction of serious scope and reach. ยท

Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism."

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