The Myth of Ronald Reagan

The Man Who Sold the World:
Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America
by William Kleinknecht

a book review by Allen Barra, Feb 13, 2009


"The aftermath of Reagan's presidency," Garry Wills wrote in a famous introduction to his 1987 book "Reagan's America," "has proved, over and over, that Reaganism without Reagan is unsustainable." In the two decades since Wills' book was published, a significant portion of the press and public seems to have forgotten that. William Kleinknecht is on a mission: In "The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America," he is out to demonstrate that Reaganism with Reagan never worked.

Kleinknecht, a veteran crime correspondent for the Newark Star-Ledger and the New York Daily News and an American Society of Professional Journalists award winner, is angry. But unlike many writers who have taken scatter shots at the Reagan legacy, Kleinknecht hasn't lost his temper-in Henry James' words, he has found it.

In a fiery and lucid introduction he writes, "This book is born of annoyance: a great bewilderment over the myth that continues to surround the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It gives voice to a vast swath of psychically disenfranchised Americans, millions of them, lumped most thickly in the urban areas on either coast, who never understood Reagan's appeal." Kleinknecht's thesis is nothing less than that Reagan was the "obvious enemy of the common people he claimed to represent, this empty suit who believed in flying saucers and allowed an astrologer to guide his presidential scheduling. ..." The great conundrum "is this: none of [the] unmistakable harbingers of American decline is being laid where it belongs-at the door of Ronald Reagan" [emphasis Kleinknecht's].

In the tradition of most previous Reagan critics, Kleinknecht doesn't try to draw a bead on Reagan from an ivory tower. He goes after Reagan from the blue collar on up: "He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of the country. ... His legacy-mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization-helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and sense of community."

Reaganomics did create fortunes, but mostly for those at the top of the economic ladder; it also brought "a reversal in the slow gains that the working class and the poor had made in the previous two decades."

During a month when Republicans dug in against Barack Obama's stimulus plan, Kleinknecht's words, written last year before the economic crash, ring clear. "Reaganism replaced Enlightenment thinking with the corrupted Romanticism that portrays free-market purism as an article of religious faith that is the real meaning of America. The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates." If this sounds like hyperbole, then you weren't listening to the Republican response to President Obama's bailout proposal.

"The Man Who Sold America" has much in common with another recent scathing indictment of the Reagan administration, Will Bunch's "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future." Both books cover much of the same territory: Contrary to the nearly two decades of idolatry from the right, Reagan was no more popular than numerous other modern presidents (as Kleinknecht notes, just 27 percent of eligible voters elected him in 1980, a year which saw a record-low turnout at the polls), the legacy of the famous 1980 tax cut was an era of deregulation that spawned CEO and Wall Street greed, and, most important, the Reagan revolution did not do what it set out to do, namely to reduce the size of government ("Big government," writes Kleinknecht, "was not stripped away in the Reagan years; it was just redirected to the needs of private enterprise").

However, Bunch sees Reagan primarily as a pragmatist whose image has been hijacked by a neoconservative cabal while Kleinknecht sees Reagan himself as the betrayer of what once was regarded as genuine conservatism. Reagan's early backers "were not Burkean conservatives or acolytes of the John Birch Society. They had little interest in social issues. ... Most were not even particularly passionate in their anticommunism. They viewed Reagan quite simply as a potential liberator for the entrepreneurial class." They were men who simply "wanted deep cuts in their taxes and government regulators out of the way."

Many seminal thinkers of 20th century American conservatism-Kleinknecht cites Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and German-born émigré Friedrich A. Hayek, to whose names I would add G.K.Chesterton-regarded large corporations as "a threat to folkways and small-scale private property. It was, after all, not government but big corporations that did so much to wipe out agrarian culture. The former machinist or farmer now bagging groceries at Wal-Mart is not exactly a conservative icon."

This is interesting because Kleinknecht's case against Reagan isn't based on the former actor's adherence to traditional conservative values but on his disregard of them. There are two enemies of a real conservative society, thought Chesterton; one of them "is State Socialism and the other is Big Business." In other words, the enemy is bigness, no matter on which side of the political spectrum it originates. Hayek, quoted by Kleinknecht, wrote something similar in his highly influential book "The Road to Serfdom" (1944): "... [T]he movement toward totalitarianism comes from two great vested interests: organized capital and organized labor. Probably the greatest menace of all is that the politics of these two most powerful groups point in the same direction." Such sentiments, Kleinknecht writes, "were swept out of Washington in the 1980s. Relief from government regulation was one of a handful of core beliefs that really mattered to Reagan and his business supporters, and anything that stood in the way of the natural consolidation of the nation's productive forces was a barrier to be removed." Or as Reagan's good friend whom he appointed attorney general, William French Smith, put it, "Bigness doesn't necessarily mean badness."

"The Man Who Sold the World" is the most concise and well-thought-out argument against Reagan. Kleinknecht is no poet; he too often writes at the top of his voice. Nonetheless, if he is guilty of occasional pamphleteering, there's never any doubt as to his meaning, and many of his phrases linger after one has closed the book. "By discrediting government as a legitimate and meaningful presence in the lives of Americans," he writes in his final chapter, "The Second-Rate Society," "Reagan repudiated the very concept of national leadership. By exhorting Americans to place self-interest above all, he undermined the spirit of sacrifice and the possibility of a common effort to solve our most pressing national problems."

Kleinknecht isn't just writing to be heard by liberal Democrats: His challenge to conservatives is nothing less than to once again be conservative.


Allen Barra writes for numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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