Reaganland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s critically acclaimed history of the modern conservative movement. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, continuing through the Nixon years, and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, the four-volume saga furnishes an enormous amount of period detail culled from a wide variety of sources. Focused mostly on electoral politics, it chronicles the period’s key campaigns, surveys the social movements that shaped the political landscape, and encapsulates countless contemporary issues. Perlstein’s commentary is sparing but refreshingly tart. Although he elsewhere describes himself as a European-style social democrat, he clearly admires the conservative movement’s passion and resolve, and he is especially tough on liberal pundits and operatives who dismissed or underestimated their adversaries. For these and other reasons, Perlstein’s magnum opus is the most comprehensive introduction to the Age of Reagan.
In my review of the third volume, I noted that Perlstein’s style was exhausting but not quite exhaustive. That pattern is even more evident in Reaganland. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use an explicit theme or organizing device to shape and direct the story. Moreover, it violates a basic narrative convention by steadily expanding the size of the cast. On almost every page of this lengthy book, Perlstein introduces several new characters, many of whom appear only once. As a result, the final volume sprawls more than an Orange County suburb. Perlstein marches through the major events, issues, and news items of the Carter presidency: Panama Canal, OPEC, Iran, SALT II, Moral Majority, Three Mile Island, Afghanistan, tax revolt, affirmative action, supply-side economics, and so on. He also details the shifting rivalries and alliances, both major and minor, within and between the two parties. Although his determination to map every twist in the road is impressive, the steady accumulation of detail does not always lead to a deeper understanding of the period or its major figures. Indeed, I often felt that I was reliving, rather than reassessing, a four-year period that was not especially enjoyable the first time around. Even as the curtain falls on his lengthy series, Perlstein draws no conclusions about the movement he has chronicled. Instead, he quotes Reagan’s inaugural speech (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem …”) and adds that the fur coats at the inaugural balls “so overloaded the coatracks that they resembled great lumbering mastodons out of the prehistoric past.” It is a nice touch but not a helpful summation of a lengthy, complicated narrative.
Something else is missing as well. Having read the entire cycle, I now believe it is related to the story’s provenance. Thousands of minor characters come and go in Perlstein’s epic, but its chief protagonists emerged from a relatively small region— Southern California and Arizona—which had exercised little political influence at the national level. Perlstein documents the rising power of the Sun Belt, but one can read this entire series without learning why Southern California produced the two most important American politicians in the second half of the twentieth century. When posed directly, that question calls our attention to Perlstein’s grasp of the region’s history and political culture. Although one does not expect complete mastery in a story of this scope, his portrait of California has several gaps and flat sides. It would have benefited, I think, from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s analysis in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which argues that California agribusiness served as the state’s political crucible during that turbulent decade. Businessmen forged a new kind of populism that combined corporate funding for grassroots efforts, sophisticated media campaigns, systematic intelligence-gathering on adversaries, and coalitions between religious and economic conservatives. That form of corporate populism was also characterized by its virulent anti-communism, which eventually spread from the state’s fields and canneries to Hollywood and the University of California. It is no accident, Olmsted notes, that Nixon and Reagan launched their political careers by attacking Communists real and imagined. Perlstein touches on related material, but Olmsted puts the movement’s origins into sharper focus.
Also absent are critiques by California leftists. Chief among them is Carey McWilliams, who has been described as “the state’s most astute political observer” (Kevin Starr) and “the California left’s one-man think tank” (Mike Davis). Although McWilliams was known back east for editing The Nation magazine, he was also tracking Nixon and Reagan as early as the 1940s. When Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950, McWilliams tagged him as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.” In the mid-1960s, when the conservative movement began to flex its muscles, McWilliams regularly challenged Nixon and Reagan in the pages of The Nation. In 1966, for example, he called out Reagan in an article called “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” In it, he described that year’s gubernatorial race as “one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” In the aftermath of the Watts Riots and the state’s fair-housing ordeal, McWilliams took note of Reagan’s dog whistles:
There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to ‘keep the Negro in his place.’
Despite his perspicacity, or perhaps because of it, McWilliams never appears in Perlstein’s epic. He certainly did not play the part of the clueless liberal, one of Perlstein’s favorite types. Barely two years after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, McWilliams was well aware of the conservative movement’s growing power in California. Indeed, he warned that Pat Brown, the two-term incumbent, was in danger of losing to a former B-movie actor who had never held public office. Mainstream outlets largely ignored his charge of racism, preferring the weak sauce of consensus journalism, but McWilliams and others saw through Reagan in real time.
Perlstein’s most remarkable omission, however, concerns the Los Angeles Times. Quite simply, one cannot understand Southern California history or politics without a thorough consideration of that newspaper and its owners. For three generations, aspiring Republicans curried favor with the Chandler family. Norman Chandler later conceded that the Times strongly supported the GOP—not only on the op-ed page, but also in its news coverage. In fact, the newspaper had sabotaged Democratic candidates, including Upton Sinclair, whom the Times smeared regularly during his 1934 gubernatorial campaign. The paper’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, told a colleague, “We don’t go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York—of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.” That pattern changed in the 1960s, when Otis Chandler turned the Times into a respectable news organization. The Times became a less reliable advocate for GOP candidates, but it occupied an even larger niche in the national media ecology. Bitter about the newspaper’s new orientation, President Nixon ordered an investigation of Otis Chandler’s taxes. Perlstein probably understands the newspaper’s centrality; a note in the first volume recommends David Halberstam’s history of the Times during its early years. By my count, however, the newspaper receives only 13 passing mentions in all four volumes. Otis Chandler is cited once—in a passage about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buff and Norman Chandler, who exerted enormous political, commercial, and cultural influence in Los Angeles, likewise receive one brief mention each.
When Perlstein focuses on California politics, the results are mixed. Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt receives ample discussion in Reaganland, as does Governor Jerry Brown’s response to it. Perlstein’s summary of the property tax issue is on point, but his depiction of Brown conforms to the Governor Moonbeam stereotype. “Jerry Brown was a strange man,” Perlstein asserts. “He drove his own used Plymouth sedan, slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor apartment, and spent his spare time at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Brown was by no means a conventional politician, but even now, nothing in Perlstein’s description seems especially odd to me. Nor does it capture Brown’s appeal. His trademark emphasis on limits and fiscal restraint, which Perlstein suggests were trumped by Reagan’s blue-sky optimism, turned out to be useful after the global economic meltdown of 2008. A byproduct of the Reagan revolution’s penchant for deregulation, that crisis brought California to the brink of insolvency, but Brown helped clean up the mess. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, who appears frequently in the early volumes, seems far stranger to me than Jerry Brown.
Reaganland also gives ample space to the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California. Harvey Milk figured prominently in that episode, and Perlstein quotes his Gay Freedom Day speech at length. Although Milk begged President Carter to denounce the initiative, it was Reagan who surprised everyone by taking a relatively soft line on the issue, and Orange County state senator John Briggs blamed him for the measure’s defeat. That outcome seems sane enough, but 200 pages later, Perlstein doubles down on his portrait of “oddball California.” He returns to the gay rights movement, recounts the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and features Dan White’s trial. Relying heavily on Warren Hinckle’s coverage, he mistakes Hinckle for “a former New Left radical” and scrambles the sequence of the two events that staggered San Francisco: “Then came those assassinations, then Jonestown, within the space of ten awful days.” In fact, the Jonestown massacre preceded the City Hall slayings. Perlstein closes the episode with an interesting irony. The word neighborhood, he notes, was one of the “five simple, familiar, everyday words” that Reagan believed should guide every GOP message. After describing the Castro district riots that followed the White verdict, Perlstein adds that Reagan’s insight was a sound one: “Just look at how many people were willing to spill blood for their neighborhoods in San Francisco.” Of course, such conflicts were unthinkable in Reaganland. Although sparingly applied, Perlstein’s piquant sense of irony is one of his major assets.
Behind Perlstein’s project is a deceptively simple question: How did Ronald Reagan become the dominant American politician of his era? Reaganland is the most obvious place to address that question directly, but Perlstein largely coasts on his earlier claim that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s political success sprang from the tension between American optimism and pessimism. Reaganland recounts Jimmy Carter’s failed attempts to harness that tension, but as Perlstein notes in the previous volume, Reagan had already resolved it with a single (if dubious) theological stroke. In Reagan’s sunny view, even the country’s gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to America’s divinely ordained role as leader of the free world. He considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a noble cause, stood by Richard Nixon long after the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, and seemed untroubled by even the ugliest forms of racism. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan had “the capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” When other conservatives spouted racist remarks and violent threats, that capacity was especially useful.
For all the differences between the two men, Reagan also endorsed Nixon’s peculiar sense of inculpability. Discussing the president’s role in national security, Nixon famously claimed, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In effect, Reagan extended that immunity to the nation as a whole. In Reagan’s imaginary republic, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would consider him a sociopath. Now, four decades after Reagan’s victory, even the most casual observer can see that pathology on full display in the White House. This degeneration is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of American political history since 1980. As political commentator Charles Pierce likes to say, that was the year the GOP ate the monkey brains. Despite its foibles, Reaganland shows exactly how that table was set.
“A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Joan Didion wrote about her home state. The same was true of Reagan’s fantasies and simplifications. In the end, we paid for all of them, though Perlstein’s monumental work will not document that reckoning.
Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.
Copyright: © Peter Richardon. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.