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Sean Wilentz brings the 40th president into historical focus and concludes he compares favorably to Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and both Roosevelts.

Sean Wilentz and Ronald Reagan? The Princeton professor and the Gipper seem like a made-for-cable-news odd couple. For starters, Wilentz is best known as a scholar of early American history: He copped a Bancroft Prize and was a Pulitzer finalist with his 2006 work, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. He is also a self-described “liberal academic” who made an extracurricular foray into the world of contemporary politics by testifying on Bill Clinton’s behalf at the 1998 House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings. In his latest thought-provoking twist, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, Wilentz likens Reagan to Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as a president who changed the tenor of his times—and irrevocably stamped his name on our era.

Why Reagan?

I wanted to see if I could apply the tools and expertise I’d acquired in writing about American history to writing about more recent events—what Theodore Draper called “present history.” I’m obviously interested in current American politics and even had a minor role in it. That was the other challenge: Could I write about these events with the dispassion and impartiality required of any history?

What most surprised you?

The image many people—especially a liberal academic like me—had of Reagan was of a great communicator, a very able actor, a person who could hit his mark and deliver the pitch lines for his constituents, but nothing much more. More a front man than he was an executive. I discovered pretty early on that image was false. Reagan was an extremely capable and shrewd politician and executive who was very involved in the day-to-day running of his administration. He had what somebody called “an economy of leadership.” He understood that to get things done, he had to concentrate on the two or three things that meant the most to him. And he was very good at delegating responsibility for the many other issues he faced at any one time—unlike Jimmy Carter, for example, who was overwhelmed by the job.

What does he share with other presidents who defined their eras?

He mobilized a new coalition of voters about where the country should be headed—and whoever can do that successfully, the age is theirs. Jefferson overcame what he saw as Federalist exclusivity to broaden the boundaries of political participation and geographical expansion. Jackson expanded on that: By the 1840s even the Whigs were calling themselves Democrats. That continues until slavery explodes the Jacksonian system. Then Lincoln put the notion of secession for ever to rest.

What do you consider the mark of greatness in a president?

What makes a president important, let alone great, is rising to the crises he’s dealt. Certainly the three greatest presidents— Washington, Lincoln, FDR—faced the three greatest crises in American history. Reagan was faced with an economy in bad shape and the breakup of the Nixon-Kissinger global system, which was evident in Iran and Nicaragua. It wasn’t exactly the Great Depression or World War II, but Reagan’s first inaugural address constantly alludes to FDR, his early hero, making it sound as if it was. Though he had only a very narrow margin in the popular vote, he governed as if he had a mandate. His 1981 tax cut rolled over a Democratic Congress. It’s unclear to me that his actions did much to fundamentally change the economy; the 1982 recession and Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker had more impact. But Reagan clearly understood what it took to be a great leader.

What did it take?

Reagan projected optimism in ways no other postwar conservative did. He didn’t seem dour or scary. He had a quality that was almost sensuous. That was sort of weird: Here’s this divorced guy who’d hung out in the Hollywood fleshpots and didn’t go to church very much, and he’s hanging out with Jerry Falwell. Reagan plainly wasn’t priggish, even if he stood up for old-fashioned values. He managed to weld FDR’s vigorous, forward-looking persona to hard-right politics. That was part of his genius.

So he realigned America’s expectations.

Exactly. Overall, I don’t think Reagan rates with the other five as a great president, but he’s the only conservative president who’s managed to put his mark on his era as they did. That entails picking up from the failures of the opposition. The opposition party has to have shown it is incapable of rising to the day’s challenges. Then you provide an alternative. If that becomes the conventional wisdom, you’ve changed the conversation. That’s what Reagan did. Nixon tried to do it too—and if it hadn’t been for Watergate, my book would be called The Age of Nixon. But there was Watergate, which meant the political center completely collapsed, though the Democrats wrongly assumed Watergate cemented their ascendancy.

What led to Reagan’s ascendancy?

He managed to effect a marriage between the old Republican establishment and the new conservative movements, turning the party into an almost wholly owned subsidiary of the right wing. He accomplished one big thing he was always proud of: Cut the top marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, then to 35. That was a major assault on progressive taxation, and meant things he objected to—what he called the “welfare state”—simply would not be funded. Until recently, his assumptions set the terms of debate in American politics, the way New Deal Keynesianism did in the previous era—despite the fact that Reagan raised taxes probably more than anybody up to that time. He was willing to compromise to stop the deficit’s rising, which got his militant supporters very angry—even though it allowed him to continue dismantling the previous tax structure.

What parallels do you see between Reagan and Andrew Jackson, who took on the economic establishment of his era?

Jackson railed against the ability of the rich to bend government to their own uses; this is not what Reagan was about. But as a general and a political leader, Jackson had acquired an ability to control his self-presentation. He was known as an irascible, volcanic personality, but he learned to use it strategically. He got ferocious during the confrontations over the Second Bank of the United States, scared bankers out of the White House, then laughed with his secretary and said, “Didn’t I handle ’em well?” Reagan had that too; he’d learned it as his craft in Hollywood. He liked to portray himself as a tough, flinty Irishman, slow to anger but ferocious when necessary. Look at the PATCO strike, where he broke the air traffic controllers’ union that endorsed him in the 1980 election. There are other similarities in their executive abilities. Like Jackson, Reagan was at his best when he had different voices around him arguing for different perspectives and policies. At those times he knew when to abandon his first principles for successful leadership.

Have other strong presidents had to abandon first principles?

All of the great president had principles and pushed them as far as they could. But if they were defeated, they moved on. They understood the compromise dynamics of American politics. Lincoln not only wanted the Union saved, he wanted it saved on very particular terms: Recognize his legitimacy as president and understand that his presidency would restrict the spread of slavery. But he could play all kinds of games and did—as long as it meant keeping the Union intact on his terms. Reagan knew how to do that.Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between a hedgehog and a fox. The fox is very cagy, looking at all sides at all times, and the hedgehog has one big goal. I think successful presidents are both hedgehogs and foxes.

That sounds like Jefferson.

Jefferson may have been the one person in the government who believed the Louisiana Purchase required a constitutional amendment. But he gave way for the larger good, his vision of an expansive America of yeoman farmers. In 1985 everyone except Secretary of State George Schultz and Reagan’s wife, Nancy, told him that Mikhail Gorbachev was a Stalinist trying to get trade deals with the West to help the hurting Soviet economy. So at first Reagan was wary; their summit at Reykjavik broke down. But Reagan saw in Gorbachev something his advisers and the Washington establishment did not see: someone trying to save Soviet communism by reforming it. To Reagan, that raised the possibility of negotiating a different kind of world politics. People think he used that aggressively, threatening to bankrupt the Soviet Union with ever-higher military expenditures, but he didn’t. He prepared America militarily, and after his own policies came a cropper in Lebanon and Nicaragua, he saw in Gorbachev a man he could deal with. So he broke with his own dogma—and many people around him. I think that was his greatest achievement.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.