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Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years.

SLEEPWALKING THROUGH HISTORY America in the Reagan Years

For the ordinary American citizen with a serious social and political consciousness, the conditions of the 1980s were among the most deplorable in the history of this nation. It has been simply stated that the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and all argument to the contrary was alibi. The thinking American was either frustrated or duped; the burdens on the family were heavier and the rewards slimmer.

As Haynes Johnson writes in Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years, the '80s were "a self-indulgent and imitative age" and "a decade that will extract a heavy price from Americans unborn."

Haynes Johnson, who appears on the weekly PBS program "Washington Week in Review," is a Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner. His extensive interviews with leaders of the last decade are the narrative of this book. It begins in the early hours of January 20, 1981 - Inauguration Day for Ronald Reagan - with President Jimmy Carter anxiously awaiting news of the possible release of 52 Americans held hostage for nearly 15 months in the U.S. embassy in Teheran. Johnson records President Carter's deep concern about the hostages, the sleepless nights, the frantic phone calls, the meticulous notes on progress. When word of imminent release finally comes in the early morning, President Carter places a call to brief the new president, and is told that Reagan " |had had a long night, was sleeping, and was not to be disturbed.' "

So it was morning again in America. Johnson explains that the supply-side economic system was the ideal notion of a cadre of idealogues headed by the patron saint of idealogues - Ronald Reagan. Reagan believed that less governance, less regulation, and less constraint would give way to more venture-someness, more prosperity, more freedom. As Americans realize and continue to discover, it was an invitation to take the money and run.

There were warnings that Reagan's agenda would lead to practical disaster amid growing dissent. But two events solidified the people in Reagan's favor, and transformed him "into a mythic figure in American life" - the assassination attempt of March 30, 1981, and the air traffic controllers' strike when he fired and replaced all 11,600 of them.

By surviving and courageously joking about his injury, he imparted optimism to Americans. By his decisive action against the strikers, he seemed a bold spirit who would lead us marching into the future. He was the desperately needed resuscitator of confidence.

Johnson discusses the precipitous position of American industry and the avoidance of crucial research and development investment. He argues, however, that this was compounded by the arrogance and complacency of industrial leaders.

He takes us through the three great scandals - Wedtech, HUD, and Iran-Contra - and Reagan's astonishing ability to remain unscathed. He takes us through the colossal financial blunders of the '80s - Trump, Boesky/ Milken, and the crash of '87 - and the decade's elaborate wedding of television and evangelism - Bakker, Swaggart, and Roberts.

Johnson allots several chapters to the Iran-Contra affair. The happenings - from Reagan's obsession with Nicaragua (to the detriment of other critical issues); to the wink-of-the-eye approval to supply the contras by any means; to the clandestine meetings among officials, delegates, and envoys ("the privatizing of U.S. foreign policy"); to the bogus Tower Commission; to the preposterous effects of Oliver North's testimony - devolve like a foul spy novel. And Ronald Reagan emerged tainted, but absolved.

He concludes: "America's greatest test in the '90s lies not beyond its borders, as two generations of Americans were taught during the cold war era, but within. If America falls, it will likely be from internal causes and probably because of four factors: from its failure to address long-festering social and economic problems and growing divisions among its citizenry; from subversion of its constitutional system, as in the Iran-Contra affair; from the corruption and ineffectiveness of its government; and from the cynicism and inattention of its people."

Reading Haynes Johnson's book, we are persuaded to consider the whole concept of "government." Is it so incomprehensible to our public officials that "government" is a body drawn from the community of citizens to enhance and strengthen the welfare of the community? That a nation shall be judged by how well it attends its people?

In the end, Johnson writes, "It is easier to describe what happened in the Eighties than to explain why it happened."

Nye Thuesen is employed at Sam Weller's Zion Book Store.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Olympus Publishing Co.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Thuesen, Nye
Publication:Utah Business
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Words:746
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