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Present at the Transition: an interview with John Ehrman, author of The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (Orrin C. Judd, 6/05/05)

John Ehrman –author of the well-regarded study The Rise of Neoconservatism : Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994—has written a new book: The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. It is one of the first full-length studies of the decade, examining economic and social changes as well as the politics of the period. In a pleasing departure from the hyperpartisanship that characterizes so much writing today, Mr. Ehrman takes an objective look at what Ronald Reagan actually achieved, rather than simply buying into the rhetoric about Revolution that both Left and Right bandy about.  He portrays an America that was undergoing two big transitions on the homefront, one of which saw conservative ideas recapture the public legitimacy they had lacked since the onset of the Great Depression and another which saw the economy shift from industrial production to information technology.  The book is especially worth reading for its portrayal of how Americans generally and the two political parties in particular dealt with those transitions.

The following is an e-mail interview conducted in early June 2005:

Howdy Mr. Ehrman:

Congratulations on a fine book and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions. 

Q: David Halberstam had a bestseller several years ago with The Fifties, but it's not as if there's a whole genre of such books.  I wonder if you could say something about how you came to write a book focused on one decade?

I wrote the book as an effort to answer some questions about the decade that have been lingering since Reagan left office in 1989.  The question that I started with was economic: was the era as bad as Reagan’s critics claimed, or as good as his supporters argued?  >From that starting point, the research took me to additional questions: who gained and who lost?  Why?  What effects did this have on political and social life?  How do the eighties still affect us?

I had no particular model for the book, but wanted to make it one that an average person could enjoy and learn from.  That meant structuring the book as simply as possible, keeping it short, and writing as clearly as I could, but without talking down to the reader.  To do this, I broke each chapter into four sections, and focused each of those on a particular issue, and then followed the stories from chapter to chapter, through the decade.  This, I think, makes it easy for readers to understand complex issues without getting bogged down in long explanations or technical jargon.  It also helped that my editor imposed a strict limit on length, so I could never go off on any tangents.

Q: Why did you choose to write about the '80s in their entirety rather than a book about the Reagan administration?

I think the Reagan years really do take up almost the entire decade.  He was the dominant player on the national scene from the spring of 1980, when he secured the Republican nomination, until he left office in January 1989.  George H. W. Bush continued many of his policies—at least initially—and the political, social, and economic forces Reagan set in motion also continued after he retired.  I felt I had to consider political, economic, and social forces because they all worked simultaneously and influenced one other; leaving any of them out would have made the book incomplete and, perhaps, distorted the picture of the eighties.

Q: Why did you choose not to treat foreign affairs in any considerable depth?

It was a question of length.  Foreign affairs in the eighties, and Reagan’s policies, need a book-length treatment, and to have tried to cover the issues in just a chapter would have left readers with a very selective, superficial portrait of a complicated and fascinating subject.  I didn’t see much point in doing a poor job on such an important issue, so I kept the focus on domestic matters. 

There may be some danger that people will forget the American achievement in winning the Cold War, but I do not think it is a great one.  The Cold War covers such a large proportion of American history—right now, about one-fifth of the time since independence—and has so many major events and developments that it will always be an irresistible area for scholars and writers.  No one has yet written a thorough, objective book on Reagan’s foreign policy and role in the Cold War, but someone will as the controversies about Reagan die down and more records become available.  When that happens, I expect Reagan will get a lot of credit for bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

Q: One of the things that distinguishes the book from so many others about the era is that it's neither a love song to Ronald Reagan nor a bashing of him. Do you consider yourself to be a non-partisan?  Or is this a stylistic choice you've made for the purposes of writing?

Historians constantly debate the issue of bias and whether it is possible for individuals to set aside their personal views and evaluate evidence and events objectively.  My personal views are free-market and conservative, which makes me sympathetic to Reagan and other conservatives.  But I also believe that when writing history it is my obligation to evaluate the facts as honestly as I can, base my conclusions on what they show, and not be afraid to change my mind if the evidence warrants it (as I did several times while I was writing The Eighties).  That way, readers can get an accurate understanding of events and make their own judgments about whether they were good or bad. 

I don’t think it helps anyone, liberal or conservative, if histories are deliberately slanted or if writers let their biases take over.  In writing on politics in the 1980s, for example, it would be easy to laugh at many of the things people said at the time, make fun of hapless figures like Michael Dukakis, or never criticize Reagan.  But I think that would be a big mistake.  We learn a lot more if we evaluate people and their ideas carefully.  That’s why, even though my evaluation of Reagan is favorable, I have a section in the book that looks at Reagan’s spotty management record, how it still effects American politics, and try to draw some useful lessons from his failures.  That’s also why, in the chapter on cultural conflicts, I tried to look at the problems facing both sides and see what we can learn from their behavior and mistakes.

I think The Rise of Neoconservatism is a good example of how this approach pays off.  In that book, I took both the neocons and their opponents’ ideas seriously, but also tried to be honest in my evaluations—some neocons were very angry about specific observations I made about them.  Because of this, the book has stood up well.  After more than ten years, it is still cited as the main reference on the evolution of neocon foreign policy views.
None of this is to say that historians can always keep their biases out of their books or should not form political opinions.  But they should do their best to save them for the Op-ed pages.

Q: The two themes that I thought really stood out were: that you view the 80s as  more of a transitional period than as the revolution that both Left and Right may see it as--in particular a time when the economy was evolving from a basis in heavy industry to one in information technology and a time when conservative ideas, though they did not displace liberalism entirely, gained back the credence they'd lost in the New Deal/Great Society era. How would you assess the importance of the twin transitions and how well were they handled?

The twin transitions of the eighties, as you call them, were exceptionally important.  Start with the economic changes, which altered the arrangements that had governed the country since the mid-1940s and gave us the technology-based, highly-competitive, and more individualist system we have today.  In fact, I think it is hard to see how the economy of the 1990s and 2000s could have developed without the changes of the eighties.  Would the Internet have taken off if AT&T had not been broken up?  Would large corporations have become as competitive or brought as many new products and technologies to market without the threat of hostile takeovers?  I doubt it.  The same is true on the political side.  If Reagan’s had failed—if inflation and unemployment had remained high, and growth sluggish—then conservatism would have been stopped in its tracks.  Instead of the steady move toward the right that we have seen in the last twenty years, we would probably have a worn out, stagnant system like Western Europe has today.

Reagan handled the transitions very well.  He understood that new advances were improving the American economy and life, and he knew better than to try to stop or interfere with the changes.  I think it is noteworthy that Reagan’s greatest policy initiative was to cut taxes; in most other areas, like deregulation, he either built on policies that already were in place when he became president, or was content to let developments take their course.

A final point to remember is that, even though strong forces were pushing change and innovation in the eighties, their success was not guaranteed.  Reagan often was under pressure to take various actions that would have been counterproductive, like stopping the corporate merger wave or raising taxes, and sometimes he was forced by to give in, as when quotas were put on Japanese car imports.  We can see from the auto example, which cost consumers billions of dollars and did nothing to improve the health of the US car industry, what kind of failures would have occurred had Reagan not tried to hold the line or if a different president had followed other policies.

Q: If it is fair to say that you show the Democrats to have failed to deal with the transitions in the 80s, how well do you think they've done catching up in the 90s and 00s?  Or have they caught up? Have they even yet addressed what happened in the 80s?

Yes, it’s fair to say that.  In fact, they still have not come to grips with the changes of the eighties, and it is costing them dearly.

During the 1980s, some of the Democrats’ most important constituencies went into a drastic decline.  The decline in organized labor’s strength, which had started in the 1950s, accelerated sharply; the proportion of the population in the lower education and income brackets declined as Americans spent more time in school and moved up the income ladder; and blacks began to lose political influence as the Asian and Hispanic populations grew.  The party also was hurt by the rise of a new generation of Americans who were more individualist and comfortable in a dynamic, post-industrial economy and society and were less willing to support policies that attracted older Democratic voters.

Many Democrats understood these changes and knew that their party needed to change its ideas and programs if it was going to rebuild its majority.  In the book, I describe the ideas they proposed—the neoliberalism of Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas, the industrial policy ideas of Robert Reich, and the nonideological managerialism of Michael Dukakis—but none of them were strong enough to challenge Reagan’s success or the Democratic party’s entrenched interests. 

What’s amazing is that this still is the case.  It has been sixteen years since Reagan left office, and the Democrats still have not been able to modernize their ideas or break the holds of their various traditional factions.  Even as talented a politician as Bill Clinton was unable to do this, although he tried during his first term.  The Democrats’ situation has only gotten worse since 2000, as their anger at George W. Bush has made it hard for them to think clearly about how to formulate politically strong alternatives to Republican policies.  Someday someone will write a great book explaining how all this happened.

Q: What are some of the problems you encountered in judging a period of history that occurred so recently?

Chronicling recent history is not problematic-we know the story, after all-but I think it takes about a decade before historians can start to see the true implications of events.  For the 1980s, the Bork nomination is a good example of this.  The battle took place in the summer and fall of 1987, and was portrayed as a fight for the future of the judiciary.  But that wasn't really the case-even though Bork was not confirmed by the Senate, the judiciary has gradually become more conservative anyway.  The real effect of the Bork nomination, in my view, has been on the political process for
confirming nominations-the tactics used against Bork legitimized personal attacks on nominees, which both parties have used since then, and has made
it much more difficult to confirm political appointees as well as judges.

We can see now that this has made it harder for the executive and judicial branches to carry out their functions, which I think is bad for our system
of government.  But there is no way you could have written this in, say, 1990.

Lots of things that seemed so important at the time have faded.  The federal budget deficit was a huge issue during the 1980s, and both parties as well
as nonpartisan economists predicted it would cause an economic disaster. But it doesn't seem to have mattered much in the long run, and most
economists now would be unable to say how much harm it caused, if any. (There probably is a lesson in that for our own time.)  Iran-Contra was
another such issue.  At the time, many commentators made it out to be a constitutional crisis on the scale of Watergate.  In fact, it turned out to
be a case of botched policymaking and poor presidential management, but not much more than that.

What surprised me was that at the time few people noticed some significant improvements in American life, and that these still go unremarked.  The
biggest of these was the reduction in racial and sex discrimination that resulted from deregulation-in a more competitive environment, employers who
judged their people on anything other than skill and performance paid a big price.  This led to a much fairer workplace for women, blacks, Hispanics,
Asians, and immigrants; as a result, many of them saw their incomes and standards of living rise substantially.  This trend has continued, but you
see very little about it in the press.  Maybe that's because it goes against so many preconceptions about race, discrimination, and affirmative action.

Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?

I work best with a lot of structure.  At the very beginning, I made a one-page outline for the book, listing each chapter and their sections.  Then I researched the first section of the first chapter, outlined it, wrote it, moved on to the next section, and eventually to the next chapter.  I never took notes, but either copied or downloaded materials, or bought books.

I did most of the work in 2003.  My routine was to start by revising what I had written the previous day, and then spend the rest of the morning in a library researching and reading.  I wrote after lunch—I would write a paragraph by hand, type it into my computer, tinker with the words, and then start on the next paragraph.  I found that on a good day I could write three or four pages and be satisfied with them the next morning.  After I finished each chapter, I gave it to my wife to read.  She’s a terrific editor, and always came back with good suggestions, comments, and questions.

This kind of routine and discipline kept me on track.  I never had a problem with writer’s block or being unable to figure out where the book was going.

We have a spare bedroom that I use as my office.  As you might imagine, it’s overflowing with books and paper.

Q: Are you working on another book now or do you have ideas for one?

I’ve started to work on a general history of the United States from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the election of 2004.  The main question I want to address is how the country, having reached a pinnacle of prosperity, power, and optimism in the decade after the end of the Cold War, has become so divided and uncertain in the last few years.  There are a lot of social, political, economic, and foreign policy questions to be addressed—many of which flow from the 1980s—and I think it will make for a great story.

Thank you, Mr. Ehrman, for your time and your consideration.  Best of luck with the book.