Feb. 6, 2009 would have been Ronald Reagan's 98th birthday, so this may be the ideal time to write a book about him. Or at least review one.
The nation's 40th president died five years ago and last served in the White House over 20 years ago, but historians look back at 2008 as the real end of the Reagan era. According to William Kleinknecht in his book, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America, it's a time in history that hasn't arrived soon enough.
If Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver last August wasn't a death knell -- "Our government should have worked for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us'' -- then the recent banking and stock market crises (blamed in part on government deregulation) were, pounding the last nails in the coffin known as Reaganism.
But Kleinknecht, a reporter for the Newark Star Ledger, points out that it was a different time in 1980. Reagan, who had been in the public eye since the '40s and on the political canvas since the '60s, rode to the White House on the mantra of too much government regulation and the tyranny of welfare queens (read: Black people).
However, Kleinknecht notes that Reagan's true legacy "was the dismantling of an eight-decade period of reform in which working people were given an unprecedented sway over our politics, our economy and our culture.'' It was a legacy that would include the near collapse of the economy, widening income inequality, increasing CEO salaries, 138 indictments in his administration (the most of any president), the end of locally owned media, the failed War on Drugs, and an ever-increasing prison population, largely made up of Blacks and other minorities.
Kleinknecht says this book is borne of annoyance: annoyance about the appeal of Reagan, an obvious enemy of the common man, an appeal that doesn't carry over to urban areas and disenfranchised youth living in the inner city. But in the media, Reagan was still being voted the "greatest living American in Esquire magazine in 2003.'' When CBS planned to show a 2003 movie that portrayed Ron and Nancy in an unflattering light, there was such an outcry by Republicans that the network palmed the movie off to Showtime, on cable.
"Much about Reagan's personality and even the vicissitudes of his politics can be explained by his father's alcoholism," says Kleinknecht. "As an eleven-year old, Ronald once found his father passed out in the snow on the front porch and had to drag him inside." Ron Reagan was a popular athlete who appeared in school plays but didn't have any close friends. Wear1ng the hat of amateur sociologist, Kleinknecht speculates that sons of alcoholics sometimes don't form close friendships, but will just go along with the crowd.
This might also explain why Reagan easily switched from being a New Deal liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Like a chameleon, Reagan adjusted to his new environment, hobnobbing with the rich right-wingers who sponsored his GE Electric television show.
Reagan was more than eager to please when these rich Republicans got him to run for governor of California and later president. Reagan may not have been a good enough actor to win an Academy Award, but he was good enough to sell the right-wing message. "The Reagan Revolution has rested on a fallacy -- that somewhere in the American past shimmers a halcyon era when the masses lived happily and private enterprise flourished without the dead hand of government," Kleinknecht proclaims. "The millionaire backers knew that his presidency was just a money grab by the upper class but Reagan was a true believer. His idea that America's greatness would be restored only if freed from the shackles of government unleashed one of the greatest philosophical misadventures of modern history."
It does appear that there may have been some last minute editing on the book. Chapters on commerce and the economy, probably not the most exciting of topics, comprise the center of the book, with crime and civil liberties at the end. Also surprising is there's no discussion of Reagan's saber-rattling foreign policy, which has plenty of room for criticism, even while often being brought up in positive light by his defenders.
Overall, The Man Who Sold The World seems both historical and topical, as the last vestiges of the Reagan Revolution seem to daily fall by the wayside.