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Philip Jenkins

Who Invented the 1980s?

The Carter decade

When Ronald Reagan died last year, Senator John Kerry neatly captured the public mood when he declared that Reagan "was our oldest president, but he made America young again." Millions of Americans remembered Reagan not just as an elder statesman but as a kind of secular savior, the man who saved the country from a long period of national traumas and disasters. While "the Seventies" are commonly remembered as a time of weakness and malaise, "the Eighties"—the Reagan years—are associated with vigorous growth, with a confident assurance epitomized by the president himself. The transition between eras is perfectly symbolized by the cumulative disasters of 1980, the year of the Iran hostage crisis. The message, in short, is that Jimmy Carter led the nation to the verge of ruin, but Ronald Reagan pulled us out of the mess.

It can scarcely be denied that Reagan was a great national leader, arguably the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century (and given greater length, I'd be happy to explain why I would rank him above FDR). Yet having said this, the conventional contrast between the Carter and Reagan years, between decades and presidencies, is much too stark, and overemphasizes the role of individuals. Even if "the Eighties" designates a meaningful historical era, Reagan deserves only limited credit for defining the decade.

In Morning in America, Gil Troy makes an excellent case for Reagan's capacity as a leader, and for the real achievements of his administration. We live in a "Reaganized America." Fortunately, the more of Reagan's notes and speeches that have appeared in print, the less time a historian need waste in confronting the canard about the president as an amiable dunce. Reagan had a sharp mind and a clearly defined sense of historical mission, grounded in fundamental moral and political principles. He was also blessed with the ability to convey his confidence, his evident belief both in himself and in American values. Troy rightly identifies the turning ...

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