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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Reagan’s Triumph: Perception Over Reality BY MARY ANNE REILLY THE REAGAN LEGACY Edited by Sidney Blumenthal and Thomas Byrne Edsall New York: Pantheon Books, 1988 318 pages, $22.95 BEFORE MOVING into a “borderline” neighborhood in downtown Washington I dropped into a few local establishments to ask residents how they felt about living so close to the scene of the city’s 1968 riots. Rounding the bar at Stetson’s; a selfdescribed “Tex-Mex Saloon” frequented by Washington’s condo-owners-to-be, I spotted two young women in their twenties and struck up a conversation. One of them, a petite, strawberry-blonde dynamo, her every gesture a metaphor of self-confidence, eagerly discussed her work with Georgia’s Congressman Newt Gingrich, his Conservative Opportunity Society, and her upcoming attendance at the Republican National Convention. Her friend, a decidedly more reticent exemployee of a Democratic Party political consultant, pleaded burn-out, preferring to witness our exchange. The talk turned to neighborhood conditions and the do’s and don’ts of walking late at night. The young Democrat hesitated, then mentioned that a friend of hers had been mugged just a storefront away from the bar where we sat. Her Republican friend quickly added that particular victim was inclined to look for trouble, anyway. “Don’t worry about the neighborhood,” she concluded, “just look like you know where you’re going.” In The Reagan ‘Legacy, co-editor and contributor Sidney Blumenthal suggests that a “triumph of perception over reality” has taken place during the Reagan era. At best, this triumph involves a “nostalgia for a past that never happened.” At worst, Blumenthal implies, such a victory indicates that we are passing through an Orwellian interlude in American political life an era when “style equals substance,” “fashion is power,” and looking like you know where you’re going Mary Anne Reilly is a freelance writer living in Washington. is more important than taking stock of where you are. All seven contributors to The Reagan Legacy have made it a point to take stock of where we are as a result of the Reagan years. But, first, let there be no misunderstanding. While the book’s contributors range from an American Enterprise Institute fellow to an editor of In These Times, readers of The Reagan Legacy will hear about though usually not from staunch defenders of Reaganism. For that perspective they are advised to look somewhere in one of the other Reagan retrospectives turning up weekly in local bookstores. That said, it is also necessary to mention that the essays were written during the winter of 1987 and the spring of 1988, when the left and right jabs delivered by the 1986 Democratic recapture of the Senate, Iran Contra, and the stock market crash had Reaganism on the ropes. Since that time, partly as the result of a resilient economy, the master strokes of Bush campaign manager James Baker, and a voting public disgusted and bored by the campaign, Reagan-style Republicanism has not suffered the repudiation that some liberals had hoped and even bet that it would. In fact, as the Presidential campaign drew to a close, it appeared, on the surface, that Reagan-like appeals on defense, economic growth, patriotism, and family might result in a staggering margin of victory for the Republicans in the electoral college. Such a development might tempt Careless observers to conclude that a realignment of the electorate has occurred, that some 25 years of conservative blood, sweat, and tears has at last produced a Republican majority. But look again. As Reagan Legacy contributors maintain, one Republican President plus two Democratic houses of Congress do not a realignment make. Democrats have retained control of the Senate and the Congress and will restrain Bush Administration efforts to strongarm a conservative agenda. On the state and grassroots level, Democrats will remind Republicans that they still have a lot of catching up to do. This is not to say that Reaganism has not been fabulously successful in significant ways. All of the book’s contributors agree, as the introduction indicates, that the current administration has “profoundly altered the content and direction of political and economic life.” As Thomas Edsall, Blumenthal’s coeditor and fellow Washington Post staff writer observes, Reagan has succeeded in focusing the public’s attention on the cost of providing government services while deemphasizing the benefits of government intervention that the Democrats have trumpeted since FDR. This refocusing has not only paved the way for domestic program cuts that in part have contributed to a growing economic gap between rich and poor. It has also backed Democrats up against an ideological wall, describing liberals, in particular, as the Robin Hoods of modern times. 18 NOVEMBER 25, 1988