I’ll never forget my own trip to Dixon, Illinois, Ronald Reagan’s “hometown.” It was late in 2003, and I was sounding out some of the redder parts of Illinois for an article on George Bush’s upcoming reelection campaign for the Village Voice. There was, for one thing, a suffusing atmosphere of fear. I remember talking to two civil servants, a teacher and a park employee, who admitted to not liking Bush, but who begged me not to use their names. The town was run by a Republican machine, and they feared losing their jobs.
I went to the nice local bookstore, which turned out to be the place where all the liberal kids hung out for respite. I met a beautiful young hippie couple who invited me to their home (candles, flowing scarves, no telephone, Coltrane on the stereo) and they told me two stories that they thought exemplified the place. The first was about the young woman’s dad. When she was growing up, he was Dixon, Illinois’s town bookie. And in this supposedly pious, conservative, oh-so-Christian place, he never was arrested once. “Hell, the cops all bet with him!” they said. “He paid [off] everybody. Republicans, Democrats.”
The second was about a black friend of theirs, much more of a genuine hometown boy than Reagan ever was. He graduated from Northwestern and came back to Dixon because he wanted to make a contribution to the place he loved. He got a job at the local medium-security prison (now the town’s big industry), kept his dreadlocks, drove a Cadillac. Two weeks before my arrival, out of nowhere, he was pulled over by a convoy of law enforcement vehicles and spirited at gunpoint to his house, where 15 DEA agents, 4 IRS agents, two county sheriffs, and two state police turned the place upside down; they said he was a drug kingpin. He wasn’t; they found nothing; and now he was thinking of leaving his beloved hometown. The hippie couple told me the story: “It just makes us scared to be us.”
Welcome to Reagan’s America—the real thing, not the candy-colored myth.
One of the most effective things about William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America is that he makes this Dixon the central character of his opening chapter. After noting—as all responsible Reagan biographers must—that Dixon wasn’t really Reagan’s hometown (his dad was an irresponsible drunk, so they kept on moving on to little towns all over Northern Illinois; even when “settled” in Dixon, they moved from one rented home to another) he delivers a striking portrait of the Dixon that Reaganism built. In the 1970s, he reveals, Dixon, which voted 5,755 to 1,445 for their favorite son, had been a rather thriving town because, well, Democratic agricultural and policies had made it so. The bottom out fell after Reagan’s inauguration. The city’s largest employer, a developmental center for the mentally retarded, couldn’t last long; Reagan-era social service budget cuts saw to that. Strikingly, in 1985 budget cuts almost forced Dixon schools to eliminate their sports programs—the supposed very forge of the future president’s character. Commodity prices, and America’s share of the world’s wheat market, collapsed, and with it farmers’ incomes, as agribusiness raked it in. Industries left. “The city’s inflation-adjusted median family income, which had grown in the 1970s, actually declined by 9.1 percent between 1979 and 1999…. The portion of Dixon’s adults with a bachelor’s degree or better had increased from 9 to 12 percent int he 1970s but then hit a plateau. Only 12.7 percent had finished college in 2000, virtually the same percentage as two decades earlier.”
The chapter is an overture for a striking tour of what Reaganism actually meant domestically to American life: the deliberate de-industrialization, the ruinous drug war, the crassifification of just about everything, the looting of everything public that wasn’t nailed down. The casualization of cruelty and the overweening arrogance of wealth—all swaddled, by a compliant media, in a mythology that Reagan was just an average guy, renewing America for average guys just like the ones who lived in Dixon. (I was especially impressed by Kleinknecht’s reconstruction of what Reagan’s inauguration week was like in 1981: “hundreds of corporate jets paralyzed the tarmac of National Airport, forcing the control tower to redirect incoming flights elsewhere…. The new first lady brought in two hairstylists, from New York and Los Angeles, and kept one on her presidential helicopter so she could arrive at each ball freshly coiffed.” the hotel coat racks, he quotes one reporter, bore so many minks they looked like “giant furry beasts.”
I like this book. It’s concise and sharp. I especially like the chapters in which, with a clear-sightedness that is quite rare, he gives a simple and digestible lesson about how the economy that Reaganism destroyed—America’s mid-century “people’s capitalism”—functioned. Too many progressives don’t understand this history, or are able to articulate what the social protections we need to return to actually look like. And all of us could use a review.
And so, with that, I’m glad to welcome William Kleinknecht to the FiredogLake Book Salon.