Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home

“Reagan’s America” was a hard book to finish because my unanticipated disgust accumulated to a nearly intolerable degree, yet I should have read it immediately upon its publication in 1987. Radio talk show hosts extol Ronald Reagan’s presidency to no end, but in all he did before then he was a sleazy sellout, according to this persuasive analysis. Garry Wills does a fine job of explaining what it meant to be raised in the Disciples of Christ, to attend Eureka College, to live in the Mississippi River basin, to go to Hollywood and get involved in the actor’s union, to become California governor. Historical and philosophical factors were at play.

Reagan said he grew up in Huck Finn’s world, but Wills reminds there was a dark side to that story, one Reagan ignored. He routinely disregarded facts and let himself believe whatever he wanted. His father was Mr. Pious Sales Job, and it wore off on the son. “Reagan is a joiner, a cheerleader, the ‘best friend,’ not a maverick, not an independent thinker. His virtues are those of the community, of going along to get along. He is reliable rather than innovative. That is his real strength, despite his own misleading praise of enterprise, entrepreneurial risk, difference, competition, and individualism.” Whatever myth was handed down very well suited the lifeguard and frat boy and studio contract actor and company man who viewed himself as a nonconformist. When he got to Sacramento, it was a big mess and cronies cashed in all around him. When he got to Washington, conflicts of interest abounded. Meanwhile, despite his promises to make cuts, his administration increased spending in the first term and “added as much to the national debt in those four years as had been accumulated in our national history to that point…”

But Reagan sold American values, and we were buying. “He is the sincerest claimant to a heritage that never existed, a perfect blend of an authentic America he grew up in and of that America’s own fables about its past.” As president, his primary usefulness was as the mascot for our own dreams and desires.

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