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From the Streets to the Reagan White House: The Unlikely Story of Douglas MacKinnon

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“Each day we remained unrescued made me wonder if we were worth saving,” Douglas MacKinnon writes in his new memoir, “Rolling Pennies in the Dark.” The highly-readable and emotionally-charged book tells the story of MacKinnon as he rose from devastating poverty to the heights of political power.

Imagine going from living in a household where your mother attempts to kill you to the Oval Office where Ronald Reagan attempts to console you. Both events are recounted in great detail in this new book.

“Rolling Pennies” begins with an upfront anecdote, foreshadowing the despair and pain that is to come in the chapters that follow. The first chapter focuses on a street fight that ended in the thirteen-year-old MacKinnon getting stabbed. As the author recounts, “The reason I got stabbed in the first place was that some of my friends and I were involved in an old-fashioned West Side Story-type gang fight.” He adds, “Some friends and I met up with some territorial individuals from a rival street, and before anyone knew what was happening, it was on.”

This was the violent life that Mackinnon grew up in. It was a world of poverty and pain that few wealthy individuals can seriously relate to.

With two parents who had substance abuse issues and a childhood that was spent moving from one decrepit home to another, it wouldn’t have been surprising if MacKinnon had succumbed to a life of substance-abuse and persistent poverty. But the author wanted more.

He fought against his environment and the circumstances that surrounded him and emerged in the Reagan White House, where he took on “a low-level writing job” for the 40th President of the United States. When he finally met the president, both men bonded over the similarities between their youthful days as they were both raised by alcoholic fathers.

Both men overcame their circumstances and MacKinnon shared his story with the president himself. “By the time I was done,” MacKinnon writes, “I was shocked and heartened to see tears in the eyes of the president of the United States.” The author adds that his story “clearly awakened in [Reagan] some memories from his own troubled childhood.”

MacKinnon went on to serve as the Director of Communications for Senator Bob Dole. There, the author got to meet with some of the most well-known individuals from the 20th century.

One of the highlights of the book is reading about MacKinnon—who grew up with two deeply-flawed parents in tough Massachusetts neighborhoods—meeting up with these icons. His anecdote about meeting John F. Kennedy Jr. is wonderful as are the stories he tells about his experiences working with Senator Dole on creating the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. There, he found how generous some celebrities could be in memorializing our nation’s war heroes.

Although many Hollywood studios rejected the idea of giving money to the memorial (partially because its chairman was a Republican), both Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg raised funding for the project. In an undistinguished crowd, Hanks and Spielberg distinguished themselves for their support of the project. Spielberg alone donated six hundred and fifteen thousand dollars for the memorial’s groundbreaking ceremony. As MacKinnon writes, “With one incredibly generous donation, Steven Spielberg helped to erase the pettiness and partisanship of a number of his Hollywood colleagues.”

This uplifting biography comes equipped with life lessons at the end attained from MacKinnon’s life growing up in a difficult world of violence and despair. “Poverty truly is not—and cannot be—a partisan issue,” he writes, later adding that it’s crucial for those who live in poverty to “understand that hard work and personal responsibility are the keys to escape the shackles.”

MacKinnon was a victim of those shackes for a long time and one hopes that his story will help many others escape from their own shackles as well.

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