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Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era, 1980-1992.

Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era, 1980-1992, by Michael Schaller. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007. viii, 179 pp. $49.95 US (cloth), $18.95 US (paper).

Michael Schaller provides an interesting, if brief, discussion of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, emphasizing the political and diplomatic history of the twelve years of Republican rule. In addition to summarizing the key moments of the period from 1980 to 1992, Schaller supplies a necessary corrective to the triumphalist literature regarding the end of the Cold War.

Schaller devotes the first two chapters to discussing the rise of the conservative movement in the United States and the early political career of Ronald Reagan. Schaller traces conservatism from its post-World War II roots as a reaction to the New Deal programs of the 1930s, arguing that although conservatism was considered outside the mainstream through Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 presidential campaign, in reality the Cold War and backlash against the civil rights movement led Americans to question the liberal belief in an activist federal government. In the person of Ronald Reagan, conservatives found a spokesman whose personality and presence attracted voters and provided a coherent alternative to the then-dominant liberal ideology. Reagan parlayed his visibility and demeanor into two terms as governor of California.

In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, the United States entered a period of flux politically, reflexively responding to the unpopular war and Nixon's scandals by electing Democrat Jimmy Carter, who successfully campaigned as a Washington outsider. Schaller argues that Reagan co-opted Carter's outsider campaign theme in 1980, combining anti-Washington rhetoric with conservative positions that Reagan had espoused since 1964. Reagan's ability to tap a host of increasingly well-funded and organized interest groups, such as the religious right, neoconservatives alienated by detente, corporate-funded conservative think tanks, and political action committees located in the western United States, guaranteed an activist and motivated voting base. According to Schaller, Reagan also won over independents and some disaffected Democrats by promising that he would cut taxes and end the malaise which he said characterized the United States in the 1970s.

Schaller's remaining four chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, leading to occasional overlap in information. Chapter three is devoted to politics during the Reagan and Bush administrations, emphasizing the presidential election campaigns of 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992. Schaller discusses the major issues of each campaign, highlighting key turning points such as Walter Mondale's pledge to raise taxes in 1984. Next, Schaller proceeds to discuss the general economic climate during the president's term as well as personal difficulties the two men encountered. In discussing Reagan's first term, the emphasis is on recession and deficits; for the second, the emphasis is on questions about Reagan's health and mental state. Similarly, discussion of the Bush administration focuses on the recession and the so-called "wimp" issue.

Chapter four, the book's longest, is devoted to foreign policy, especially the latter stages of the Cold War. Schaller's comparatively in-depth discussion of this topic reflects his recognition that both presidents' legacies are ultimately based on their handling of foreign policy. The author argues that Reagan essentially pursued different policies during his two terms. During his first term, he enacted a massive defense build-up, coupled with an escalation of Cold War rhetoric and tensions. Additionally, Reagan embraced the opportunity to project American power into the Middle East and the Caribbean, with mixed success. Schaller describes Reagan's second-term policies as a mixture of illegal muddle in the Iran-Contra affair and exploitation of a change in Soviet leadership to pursue a lessening of Cold War tensions. Although Schaller lauds Reagan's willingness to negotiate the 1987 INF Treaty eliminating short range nuclear missiles, he criticizes Reagan's fixation with the Strategic Defense Initiative program (better known as "Star Wars"). Schaller dismisses the notion that Reagan had any plan for destabilizing the Soviets through the expense of matching the American build-up, citing a lack of any corroborating evidence.

Schaller praises President Bush's successful utilization of the United Nations to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as a textbook example of how to wage a limited war. However, Schaller notes that Bush presided over rather than caused the end of the Cold War, and indeed may have tied American policy too tightly to the individuals in charge (Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin) rather than assisting the development of a more democratic political system in Russia and the newly independent republics.

Chapter five discusses American economics and society, focusing on the impact of governmental deregulation and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. Schaller blames the two administrations' economic policies for the increasing maldistribution of wealth and massive federal deficits. He also argues that even as American society grew more diverse and tolerant, the federal judiciary grew less so, restricting the application of legislation to protect the rights of minorities, women, and the disabled.

Finally, chapter six examines American culture in a series of short descriptions of key trends and events, from yuppies to the proliferation of cable television to the rise and fall of the televangelist. Schaller provides an overview of the increasingly media-obsessed and esoteric side of American culture.

Right Turn is ideally suited for undergraduate-level university courses as well as casual readers of American history. Schaller provides a readable overview of the Reagan-Bush years that is free from post-Cold War triumphalism.

Richard M. Filipink

Western Illinois University
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Author:Filipink, Richard M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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