Historian and author Gil Troy calls the late President Ronald Reagan “the greatest president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Yet, he quickly qualifies the statement as nonpartisan and purely historical, saying he is the greatest president in the “Time magazine sense.”
“He’s the president who’s had the most effect on our lives,” Troy said, referring to the standard that Time magazine uses to choose its “Person of the Year.”
Troy’s new book, “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s,” aims to take a nonpartisan look at the polarizing president. The book blends both pop culture and politics to look at the entire decade from a “Reagan’s America” perspective.
Troy was dismayed that many works examining Reagan were “partisan and polemical,” and his goal was to create a more balanced account.
“We can have a conversation that asks what are his strengths, his weaknesses, and what did he accomplish,” Troy said.
Rather than simply rehash the historical and political significance of the Reagan years, Troy said he aimed to encapsulate the entire decade of the 1980s which featured “the ultimate celebrity president.”
“I always loved decade books,” he said, citing many of his favorites, including “Only Yesterday” by Frederick Allen, which chronicled the 1920s. “I was fascinated by ‘How do you tell the story of a decade?’”
The book covers the decade year by year in 10 chapters containing historical, political and cultural happenings, from Iran Contra to Cabbage Patch dolls and Tip O’Neill to “The Big Chill.”
Yet the historical work also offers political lessons that still apply more than 20 years after Reagan took office.
“Reagan was able to push his agenda early on, especially with the legislative strategy group. The president was engaged and really willing to put the personal touch” in dealing with Congress, he said.
He also cites Reagan’s legacy of revitalizing the Republican Party.
“He took this cranky, elitist movement and turned it into ‘Goldwater with a smile,’” Troy said.
“Morning in America” also discusses the Democrats’ struggles as the opposition to Reagan early in his first term.
“How does the opposition find traction, find its voice?” Troy asked, citing the Democrats’ use of the “Reagan recession” and issues of fairness to slow down the Reagan revolution.
“Reagan pushed the ball downfield and just got to the line of scrimmage before Democrats stopped it,” Troy said of moving Reagan’s legislative agenda early in his first term. “His people spent the rest of his term scrambling around that line.”
Troy also saw how the “Reaganized” America played into the 2004 election.
“Although I’m a historian and don’t like to admit that I find anything surprising, but I was surprised to wake up the morning after Bush won re-election and have people be surprised that cultural issues matter,” Troy said. “We live in a Reaganized America. The red vs. blue state stories go back. We must go back to the Reagan era to see how it developed.”
Reagan’s trademark populism was also a factor in the 2004 race, Troy argued.
“The 2004 election was the fight of the gazillionaires, and the only one who seemed to be an aristocrat was John Kerry,” Troy said. “Both George W. Bush and John Edwards seemed like real people who just happened to have big bank accounts.”
Troy also points out that Reagan was frequently criticized for being too moderate, but President Bush has embraced the values issues that Reagan usually avoided.
“It will be interesting to see if it is his great success or his great undoing,” Troy said.
The New York native, who spent the 1980s earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University, is a history professor at McGill University in Montreal. He has written three previous books about the nature of the U.S. presidency, and he decided to focus on one president for his latest project.
At McGill, he tries to keep his classroom nonpartisan, saying the best compliment he receives from students is that they cannot figure out his political persuasion.
“During the [2004 presidential] campaign there were so many delicious things that could be used in class. I had to be almost mathematical about it. If I made fun of Bush one day, I made fun of Kerry the next day,” he said.
Although he studies Reagan, Troy is mum about his own political affiliation, declaring on his Web site that he “is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Republican Party.”
“I have two brothers who, if the vast right-wing conspiracy had a secret decoder ring, they would have the code,” Troy said with a smile.
Troy chose the “Morning in America” campaign theme for the title because he sees it as one of the defining moments of Reagan’s presidency, and it also defined the decade for the nation.
“Reagan gave the Republicans the ability to create a narrative, a big picture story, and George W. Bush really learned that with the war on terror which parallels the ‘Morning in America’ campaign — feeling good about America. It’s not the kind of stuff you would’ve seen during the 1970s.”