Here's a shout-out to Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. You won't find them on Mount Rushmore, yet each of these Presidents can lay claim to a status that transcends stone portraiture or academic canonization. For each has stamped his name and, more important, his ideas, personality and values on a defining chapter of the American story. How do you get an age named after you? Simply put, by shattering the existing political consensus and replacing it with one of your own making, one whose influence is felt long after your time in office.
The Age of Jackson spanned four tumultuous decades, from the 1820s to the Civil War (during which Lincoln, though of the opposing party, did not hesitate to cite his predecessor's robust nationalism in order to justify his own Constitution-stretching). The man adversaries dubbed King Andrew I converted the early republic, governed by the well bred and well read, into an embryonic democracy. In making war on the Second Bank of the United States, the entrenched money power of his day, the choleric old soldier joyously invented the politics of Us--factory workers, white farmers, land-hungry frontiersmen--vs. Them--the commercial and intellectual élite, blacks, both free and enslaved, and Native Americans, whose road out of Jacksonian America turned into the Trail of Tears.
In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised Depression-weary Americans a New Deal. In practical terms, this meant rescuing democratic capitalism from its own unregulated excesses. Along the way, Roosevelt transformed the relationship between the average citizen and his government. The welfare state he fashioned in place of classic laissez-faire was largely improvised. Yet much of it--Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, federally subsidized agriculture, stock-market oversight, for starters--has long since been woven into the fabric of American life. Politically, too, F.D.R. shuffled the deck, luring black voters out of the party of Lincoln, even while placating lily-white Southern Democrats. A self-proclaimed "preacher President," Roosevelt raised a stricken nation's spirits through his unquenchable optimism and masterly use of the bully pulpit invented by his distant relation and role model Theodore Roosevelt.
In Dixon, Ill., Jack Reagan's son Ron listened spellbound to F.D.R.'s honey-on-toast baritone as it came out of the radio. Four times the future Great Communicator cast a vote for Roosevelt, whose consolidation of power in Washington the adult Reagan would set out to reverse. The Age of Reagan didn't begin on Jan. 20, 1981, when he famously declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Its roots run much deeper--to 1966 at least. Two years after Barry Goldwater pronounced an end to Eisenhower-style moderation, two years before Richard Nixon appropriated Roosevelt's forgotten man as precursor to his Silent Majority, Reagan the citizen-politician found himself leading a federation of the fed-up.