The Myth of Ronald Reagan
The Man Who Sold the
Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America
by William Kleinknecht
a book review by Allen Barra
www.truthdig.com/, 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
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
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.