- Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s
If you ever find yourself just saying "no," wanting your MTV, fantasizing about how good greed is, or if you've been asking yourself where the beef is, you have caught yourself living in the neon afterglow of that tumultuous decade of decadence, the 1980s. In our pop culture cycle, each decade finds us mining the trends of another, and we are now currently in a renaissance of 1980s nostalgia, as cable music channel VH-1 orders up sequels of its wildly popular I Love the '80s documentaries, Hollywood is remaking its teen comedy and horror flicks of the era, Nick-at-Nite runs ubiquitous marathons of the major 80s shows, rock radio sounds more like the new wave and hair metal of 1984, and the love story of Ronald and Nancy Reagan becomes a made-for-TV special. In fact, it seems that Reagan's legacy may be the key to understanding our current fascination with all things 80s, as Gil Troy's recent book argues in its rethinking of the oldest elected president's dominance over the decade.
Populating Troy's book are touchstones such as junk bonds, AIDS cocktails, "Calvins," parental advisory stickers, crack pipes, Air Jordans, and Sandinistas. And with such a provocative cast of characters, it can be difficult to fit Reagan into the heady mix. Does Troy's Morning in America fit into the larger literary canon about Reagan, or is it a book chronicling and interpreting the 1980s as a whole? The author sidesteps this question by positing that Ronald Reagan is the 1980s. He takes an "all roads lead to Rome" approach by arguing that the [End Page 137] major events of the decade were a function of Reagan's visionary grip on the nation and that each social and political pathway can be traced back to his influence. On the whole, Troy is more successful at his cultural excavation of lasting images of the times and classifying the overarching symbolic themes than he is at getting us any closer to a fuller understanding of Ronald Reagan. It's a tightrope that is an ambitious one to walk, and as Troy wryly admits, "Studying Ronald Reagan is not for the faint-hearted—or the untenured" (349).
Troy's strengths in analyzing the 1980s rather than in interpreting Reagan himself stem from his choice of structure. Each chapter is a year in the decade, exploring political battles in all three branches of government, the best-selling literature, the movies, the situation comedies and nighttime dramas, and the major headlines and scandals of that particular year. Decades are expedient classifications, and several grains of salt should be served with any dish that groups cultural values and movements this way. Troy often freely admits the limitations, yet he proves adept at developing a narrative of the events that constitute the construction of the 1980s in the public mind.
To enhance this structure, Troy also begins each chapter in a certain city or landmark that encapsulates the tenor of that particular year. He starts with Cleveland's rapid decline in 1980 as a diving board for discussing America's exhaustion at the tail end of Carter's heyday, trots to the mythical "Hill Street" on television in 1982 for an exploration of crime and race, revisits the calculated patriotism of Los Angeles during its Olympic 1984, and then travels cross-country to Wall Street's two-toned collared shirts covering up violent underbellies in 1986. Troy even moves out to Kennebunkport to visit George H. W. Bush in 1989 as he wonders how to place himself within the legacy of his old boss. Through these discussions, Troy is successful in his cultural mappings of the public space, and he is able to describe with sparkling clarity the two Americas that the Reagan era was grappling with: the constructed America and the America that actually came of age in the 1980s.
But even with such a chronological bent and a criss-cross...