Not every actor who gets a role that defines him is lucky. Ronald Reagan had to wait until the very end of his acting career for his defining role, mob boss Browning in Don Siegel’s 1964 The Killers, and he hated it. “Ronnie is a nice man,” said his costar Clu Gulager.
The movie isn’t nice. Cold, mean, and unrelievedly brutal, The Killers was made for NBC but was rejected as too violent and released to theaters instead. Visually, it’s cheap, flat, and garish. And while the plot hops all over the country, the pasteboard sets and functional furniture give you the sense of never leaving the back lot.
It’s that cruddiness, though, that makes the movie feel so prophetic. The studio system was falling apart, and American movies had not yet moved into the renaissance that would begin three years later with Bonnie and Clyde and flower in the early seventies. In this rotting simulacrum of Hollywood artifice, the gangster king is the fifty-three-year-old has-been B-movie star who would, sixteen years later, preside like a robber baron over a rotting simulacrum of America.
The extent of that rot is the subject of William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (Nation Books, 2009). Disgusted by the hagiographic regard for Reagan that has intensified since his death, Kleinknecht sets out to prove not just that Reagan destroyed the small-town America he is credited with enshrining, but that his reign was the beginning of a remaking of the country that reached its logical endpoint with the economic collapse that accompanied George W. Bush’s eight years in office.
It will fall to someone else to tackle Reagan’s foreign policy, particularly the lie that he defeated communism—as if the people who took to the streets in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were bit players. Kleinknecht’s focus is squarely on domestic economic policy. This, he persuasively argues, and not social conservatism, is how Reagan remade the world. The book is an unremitting—and sometimes wearying—catalog of Reagan’s free market evangelism, bill by bill, appointment by appointment. The result is an unholy realization of Calvin Coolidge’s remark, “The business of America is business.”
Kleinknecht opens his tale on Election Day 1980 in Dixon, Illinois, the hometown Reagan would trumpet as the embodiment of American values but would not bother to visit until his reelection campaign four years later. The small businesses that line downtown would, within a few years, be shuttered by their inability to compete with the chains whose megastores have moved into the outskirts of town. After Reagan’s cuts in state aid, the town’s center for the mentally retarded would close (1,200 jobs lost). In 1985, schools would be so poor that the sports programs, like the football team Reagan played on, would almost be eliminated. The biggest employer i...
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