Masked man rides in from out of the West, as townspeople cheer. Glowers at evil empire across the river. Evil empire trembles, crumbles; walls tumble. • Meanwhile, back in town, masked man's henchmen steal homes, burn schools, loot banks, buy guns, fill saddlebags with loot. Masked man hands out silver bullets, but only to henchmen, as they ride away. Inexplicably, townspeople still cheering. • Who was that masked man, anyway? • Neither of these two books answers that question about President Ronald Reagan. • William Kleinknecht's book The Man Who Sold the World attempts to, but when he strips away Reagan's mask he reveals horns and fangs and, down below, cloven hooves and a spade-tipped tail. There is a great deal in what he says, but methinks he doth protest too much, and it raises the question: If evil comes from good intentions, were the intentions evil? Is indifference evil in itself? Stupidity? For that matter, were the intentions good? • "This book," journalist Kleinknecht tells us in paragraph one, sentence one, was 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 disenfranchised Americans" — a wishful but dubious claim. • When James Mann pulls off the mask in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, he reveals . . . only another mask. Although Nancy Reagan has devoted much of her energy to protecting her husband's image as a man absolutely without guile, she herself admits that there was a layer to Ronnie that even she could not penetrate.
And, writes Mann (Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet), "any examination of Reagan's policies in the last years of the Cold War will show that he acted with what certainly looks like guile — or if not guile, then crafty instincts.''
When it came to Soviet policy, he fooled Richard Nixon, the doctrinaire cold warrior; surprised and exasperated Mikhail Gorbachev; and foiled his own State Department, National Security Advisor and the CIA, all of which counseled a more traditional approach — though when he reverted, in Berlin, to Cold Warspeak with "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' his advisers blanched.
His instincts trumped their intelligence. Just two weeks before his Berlin speech, Gorbachev had told his Warsaw Pact "allies" they were basically on their own, while soon after Gorbachev told the United Nations the iron curtain was kaput.
Did Reagan simply guess correctly, when men of high capacity — Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Robert Gates, Colin Powell — were wrong?
Mann argues it was "the human factor" that determined Reagan's policy. Three Soviet leaders, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, died during his first term, and he never met them. Gorbachev, with whom he conferred four times, seemed to him somehow different, a man who did not seek confrontation with the West. And he was right.
Mann, by the way, dismisses the notion that Reagan, with his scientifically dubious Strategic Defense Initiative, purposely forced the Soviet Union into spending itself bankrupt. Mann argues that for Reagan, it was the system that was bankrupt, and time would prove it so.
He is not necessarily kind to Reagan. But he is dispassionate about Reagan's Soviet policies and actions, and willing to argue that credit may well be due.
On the domestic front (neither book deals with the Iran-Contra mess, except as a distraction) — Kleinknecht is livid. His narrative of lies, chicanery, greed and sheer criminality spares no one, from Reagan with his government-is-bad patter, right on down. Down to, say, Deborah Gore Dean, the well-connected 29-year-old socialite and barfly who virtually ran (read: destroyed) the Office of Housing and Urban Development while her politically impotent boss, Sleepin' Sam Pierce, looked on helplessly.
Kleinknecht thinks Reagan's appeal to the little guy was as phony as his moral rectitude and his voodoo economics.
"The whole thing was PR," says Leslie Janka, a deputy White House press secretary under Reagan. "This was a PR outfit that became president and took over the country. And to the degree that the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did it. But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations.''
Kleinknecht traces the current recession directly to Reagan's low-tax, high-spend, help-yourself-boys policies. And he throws in everything from terrible television to public incivility, all of it related to Reagan's policies and appointments, since Reagan — or his henchmen, like the egregious Ed Meese — consciously put government departments that were related to the public well-being under people who deplored that mission. (For a similar, and even more convincing, take on all this, see Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Govern. )
The result of these years of disdain and incompetence is what we see on the front page (those of you who still have a front page in your town) every day. But I cannot agree with Kleinknecht's insistence that the press has been blind to all this. "A Bold Plan Sweeps Away Reagan Ideas" was the headline in the New York Times after President Barack Obama's budget message.
David L. Beck is a St. Petersburg writer and editor.