Thursday, March 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Bill O'Reilly "Killing Reagan"

Killing Reagan
Bill O'Reilly
w/Martin Dugard
(Henry Holt and Co. Publishing)

As a U.S. history buff with
a particular passion for
presidential U.S. history,
I knew that this installment
in the popular "Killing"
series would be right up
my alley. But what I
didn't expect, was that
O'Reilly's book would
thwack me so profoundly.

JUNE 22, 1987 - 11:00 AM

Sweltering summertime temperatures already hovered near 90° only further magnifying my flu-like symptoms.

My dad had worked for Dictaphone, a Melbourne, Florida-based electronics manufacturing plant, for nearly a decade. As an immediate family member, I would also be granted entrance into today's special on-site, outdoor event — Dictaphone's 100th Anniversary celebration. The scheduled guest speaker — the most powerful man in the world.

During the early 1960s, Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, had become well-known for making numerous cross-country trips — meeting with, and speaking to, workers at similar plants as part of his contract while hosting the popular weekly "General Electric Theater" T.V. program — before I was even born.

I remember first learning about then-California Governor, Ronald Reagan, in the pages of My Weekly Reader magazine, somewhere around 1970. As a second grader, I was fascinated to discover that Reagan had a fondness for jellybeans, as they'd helped him recently to quit smoking. Jeepers! I love jellybeans too  just like Mr. Reagan! My seven-year-old self was also quite impressed to read that Reagan would often treat young visitors at the Governor's mansion to complimentary samples of the tasty candy. Wow — Neat-o!

But this was all now of little personal significance. In the summer of '87, I certainly would not have preempted my morning hair metal Praise and Worship ritual simply to see a former Hollywood A-Lister, or a one-time Governor of some faraway left coast land. The man who was to speak today at Dictaphone was (now) President Ronald Reagan — and nothing would, or could have kept me at home — not a 102° fever, not the arena rock-sized crowd that I'd soon face, not even a half-mile walk from the final security checkpoint to my ultimate destination a prime piece of real estate located as close to that podium as possible.

President Ronald Reagan making a
June 1987 appearance at Melbourne,
Florida's Dictaphone Corporation.
The President's speech exemplified classic Reagan, plain and simple. After extending several opening pleasantries to plant management and local political figures, he quickly fired off a couple of lively jokes regarding Dictaphone's 100th Anniversary. "I'm always glad to be addressing something that's older than I am," Reagan confessed. My chest swelled with pride as the President energized the crowd of nearly 1,000 with his bold pro-America, pro-manufacturing, pro-trade, and pro-working class message.

I'd had the privilege of meeting then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush at a campaign rally during the 1980 primary season — I was just 17-years-old. It was during that speech when I first realized on which side of the political fence I actually stood — the right side. Bush's ultimate alliance with Reagan, as the Vice Presidential nominee at the 1980 GOP convention paved a successful path to the White House — and my political passion became turbo-charged. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate for whom I was old enough to vote. And throughout the two-term Reagan / Bush administration, my true political identity became developed fully.

Ronald Reagan touring Melbourne, Florida's
Dictaphone electronics plant in June 1987
But now, at age 53, even many of the fondest memories of my personal early political awakening have begun to blur a bit. And that's what made Killing Reagan such a fantastic, personal treat. Bill O'Reilly managed to transport me back to those glorious days via a well-written type of time machine. Instantly, I found myself once again, sitting on my parents' shag-covered living room floor, taking in historic GOP convention speeches and legendary presidential debate battles. And some of those memories that O'Reilly stirred within me were particularly chilling. I suddenly recalled with great clarity, walking into my after-school job at the neighborhood record store on March 30, 1981. "Hey, what's going on?" I inquired innocently  noticing my boss and several customers standing around, glued to the TV set located near the back of the store. "Aw, some idiot just shot the President," my boss replied, in total shock.

I learned long ago that politics is a bloody, full-contact sport — one driven by raging egos, and fueled by an unquenchable thirst for power. And in that regard, O'Reilly endeavors successfully to offer readers a seemingly "no-spin" narrative — revealing a good, bad, and often downright ugly "fly-on-the-wall" glimpse into not only Ronald Reagan's life and administration, but also those of Presidents, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, the great Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy. A treasure trove, to be sure   especially for an admitted presidential history geek such as myself.

This fabulously life-like cardboard
Reagan stand-up was the closest I ever
came to actually groping "the Gipper."
O'Reilly's detailed accounts of Reagan's Hollywood days, early political ambitions, and the often contentious relationships between various First Ladies all appear well-researched and add significant zing, while the disturbing side story of Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., delivers plenty of tension.

Kudos to Mr. O'Reilly, and also to co-author Martin Dugard, for presenting such a riveting read. Well done, indeed! 

-Christopher Long
(March 2016)

Killing Reagan

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