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Dividing lines

The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008 Sean Wilentz Harper: 564 pp., $27.95

May 18, 2008|David Greenberg | David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate and the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

The GENRE of "instant history" has attracted -- and often defeated -- many able writers at least since "Only Yesterday," Frederick Lewis Allen's stylish 1931 chronicle of the 1920s. Back then, Allen could merrily shrug off sources and subjects he omitted or overlooked. In contrast, today's practitioners of recent history need only boot up to confront a galaxy of data on an infinity of topics -- nagging reminders of how much we don't know and never will. Chronicles of our own yesterdays tend to bloat and sag, lacking clear organizing principles. They read like someone dumped 20 years of Newsweeks on your doorstep.

Not so "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," the latest effort to squeeze the rearview-mirror past between two covers. Its author is Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning "The Rise of American Democracy" (2005) and public intellectual par excellence. Long known in academia for "Chants Democratic" (1984), his seminal work on 19th century working-class radicalism, Wilentz has earned a wide following with his virtuosic review-essays in the New Republic and elsewhere, and most recently with his fearless op-ed writing -- emerging this year as a rare skeptic of the Obamamania that has gripped the left-leaning (male) intelligentsia.

Wilentz handles the superabundance of sources confronting modern Frederick Lewis Allens by turning mainly to the stacks of previously published material on his subject, including key primary sources such as Ronald Reagan's diaries and the Iran-Contra report. He doesn't flinch from stating that he "did not conduct a single interview in connection with this book." Notwithstanding his subtitle's chronological claims, he eases his task by confining his treatment of the current administration to a 25-page epilogue, thus skirting the perils of the "instant" in instant history.

Most important, Wilentz focuses, with an admirable lack of defensiveness, on presidential politics. "I have not been motivated by a wish to discover the deep cultural, economic, social, or psychological factors that might explain recent political history," he declares. ". . . . I want instead to provide a fresh, succinct, and accessible chronicle of American history, focused on political history, after 1974." Engrossing, provocative and destined to be influential, "The Age of Reagan" fully succeeds in that mission.

The conflicting goals of comprehensiveness and thematic unity bedevil any project of this sweep. In "Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore" (2005), James T. Patterson opted for the panoramic, covering economics, culture and society alongside Washington politics. In a different fashion, Philip Jenkins' "Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America" (2006) idiosyncratically explained the post-'60s years as a phase of dark anxiety by burrowing into topics like child abduction and gang violence.

Wilentz tries something in between. With its brisk overview of political events, from the 1975 Mayaguez crisis and Bert Lance to the Enron fiasco and Abu Ghraib, "The Age of Reagan" could anchor any college survey course. (Yes, we're now teaching "America, 1974-present.") But the author also homes in on two aspects of this period: first, Reagan and his "distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology"; and second, the disturbingly high number of constitutional confrontations America has faced since Watergate -- to wit, the Iran-Contra affair, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the Florida election fight of 2000.

Reagan aptly dominates the book. The chapters on his two terms span 160 pages, compared to 85 for Clinton's. Unlike John Patrick Diggins, whose treatise of last year, "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History," painted the president as an Emersonian romantic, Wilentz doesn't seek to boldly revise historical opinion about our 40th president; but that modesty of ambition may simply indicate that, two decades after his final bow, opinions on Reagan remain mostly split between hagiographers and unregenerate critics. Notably, Wilentz hails as Reagan's best biographer the longtime Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon ("President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime"), who is beholden to neither school of Reaganology. Like Cannon's account, Wilentz's is utterly fair, albeit more analytical and in places more pointed.

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