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The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s.

The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s. By Doug Rossinow. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 378. $35.00.)

Thirty-five years after Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration, the intense debates of the 1980s have now become intense debates about the 1980s. Reagan remains a dominating and polarizing figure. Conservatives hail him for saving America, while liberals blast him for making America more selfish and less egalitarian. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has united conservatives who worship everything Reagan did and thus grudgingly support his softened approach toward the Soviet Union with liberals who detest much of what Reagan did but grudgingly acknowledge this singular foreign policy success.

America's triumph, along with Reagan's relatively coherent ideology, has built up a consensus view that "love 'em" or "hate 'em," his was a significant presidency and that the 1980s was, as Doug Rossinow titles his book, The Reagan Era. "If a new world did not loom, a changed one did," Rossinow writes, acknowledging that Reagan shifted the terms of the conversation, turning his assumptions about America's greatness and the importance of individualism into "common sense" (10). In the 1980s, it was not clear that these assumptions would rule. Reagan was often derided as a fool and dismissed as his advisers' tool, a doddering pensioner reading from cue cards, repeating his truisms, and treating ketchup as a vegetable.

Had Rossinow published this book fifteen years ago, it would have been a pioneering work. At the time, few historians were courageous enough to take Reagan's presidency seriously, fearing that respecting him would be viewed as endorsing him. In the last decade, however, Reagan scholarship has become more sophisticated. Rossinow's work perpetuates the now-prevailing consensus view of Reagan as flawed but transformational without really advancing the conversation further.

Rossinow's sources are surprisingly stale. Neglecting the rich primary material in Reagan's presidential library, and even many of the best memoirs, diaries, and oral histories, keeps Reagan and his advisers wrapped in their public rhetoric and official moves, and provides minimal insight into their motivations.

Nevertheless, the author succeeds in two important ways. He provides a clear, well-organized, well-written overview of the Reagan era, enlivened and deepened by a strong appreciation for 1980s culture. Rossinow's broad, insightful scope justifies his sweeping subtitle, "A History of the 1980s." And The Reagan Era captures some of the era's defining contradictions, which continue to haunt us today. Rossinow identifies the tension within Reaganite conservatism between "traditionalism" and "hedonism," chiding traditionalists for polarizing America with culture wars and hedonists for derailing America with policies that magnified the gap between rich and poor (2). Rossinow shows that Reaganism encouraged a selfishness and hyperindividualism that undermined the very values he celebrated. And while acknowledging Reagan's antiCommunist success, Rossinow chronicles Reagan's failures in the Middle East, offering a particularly impressive summary of the messy misfire that haunted the second term, the Iran-Contra scandal.

In short, Rossinow's smooth and readable book is a valuable teaching tool and helpful synthesis of a significant presidency and period, even if it could have been more thorough in its research and more innovative in its argument.

Gil Troy

McGill University
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Author:Troy, Gil
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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