Douglas MacKinnon’s personal story is, in many ways, tragic — yet it is also inspirational, as it reflects the true power of the American dream. It’s a classic tale of overcoming the odds. But there’s more to it than that: It is a story characterized by courage, resolve and a dive into some of the hard-hitting issues that plague our society.
To say that MacKinnon, who has worked as a writer for President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush and as an official at the Pentagon, was underprivileged as a child growing up in Boston would be an understatement.
In his new book, “Rolling Pennies in the Dark,” MacKinnon shares with readers his path “from welfare to the White House.” The book, which came out on Feb. 28, provides the gritty and sometimes uncomfortable details of his abusive childhood and his ability, despite the elements stacked against him, to defy the odds and find success. A press release describing the book’s contents showcases a brief glimpse into these difficulties:
Douglas MacKinnon lived in squalor with little or no food, utilities or clean clothes. When his parent’s were not passed out drunk, his father would vanish for long periods of time leaving him and his siblings in the care of his mentally unstable mother. Through his childhood he escaped freezing to death when his parents abandoned him in a car during a blizzard while they got drunk in a local bar…By 17, his family had been evicted more that thirty-four times.
In an interview with The Blaze, MacKinnon further highlighted these horrific elements. In characterizing the frequent evictions he and his family faced, he said they ranged from “fairly to moderately violent” and that the MacKinnons, often times, had no running water and electricity when he was a child.
“My two parents were severe alcoholics and damaged in their own ways,” he explained. “Many times, they looked at us [three children] as a nuisance or the enemy.”
When he was eight, MacKinnon said he essentially elevated himself to the head of his family, as his parents “were in a coma for most of the time.” He also explained that he knew he needed to be the one to stand up and protect his younger sister and older brother — a tragic and terrifying prospect for such a young child.
During our discussion MacKinnon shared a number of heart-wrenching stories. The day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated sticks in his memory — but not merely because of the tragedy that the nation faced. His parents, he recalled, “worshipped the Kennedy family.”
“When I was in school and President Kennedy was shot, they made the announcement — next to me a child started laughing about it — I reached over and punched him in the arm,” he recalls. “As I was walking home that day, I noticed that all of our furniture was strewn on the sidewalk.”
It was that same day that MacKinnon and his family were thrown out of their apartment; the family slept in a car that night. While most people who lived through the tragedy of that assassination remember where they were when they heard the news, for MacKinnon, the memories about what happened that day are singed even more prominently into his brain.
In his book — and during our discussion — he also shared another incident during which his mother shot a .45 gun numerous times inside the family home, just narrowly missing MacKinnon and his siblings who were sleeping on a dirty mattress on the floor.
“They literally took her away in a straight jacket, because my dad had walked in and tackled her,” he said, as he recounted the incident. “Literally men and white coats.”
Two weeks later, his mother was back and the family carried on in tragic dysfunction. It wasn’t long before MacKinnon knew he needed to escape, but his love and worry for his younger sister always kept him nearby his family.
One of the stories that best illustrates the extreme poverty he was faced with involves the need to roll pennies to afford basic medication for his sister (this story is also where the book’s title was derived from).
“I was about 15 — no phone, no electricity — landlord had illegally shut off water,” MacKinnon said. “My sister was very sick with an infection. My mom and I found a jar of pennies…we were literally rolling the pennies and then I [went] to local drugstore to buy some medicine for my sister.”
Aside from wondering how one is able to be productive and successful later on in life after living through such adversity, I also asked how MacKinnon was able to survive the horrific treatment and unpredictability he was so regularly faced with as a child. Faith in the Almighty, he said, was a grounding factor.
When he was five-years-old, MacKinnon said that he saw a table with various trinkets on it at his school. Among them was a small nativity scene that he was drawn to.
“I asked a nun, ‘Can I have that?” and she said ‘If you give me four quarters I will give you that nativity scene,” he explained. “I found four quarters in [my father's] suit coat [that night].”
So, the small boy took the change without telling his parents and went back to purchase the nativity scene. The irony here — a young child essentially stealing change so that he could purchase a religious item — is intriguing. But in many ways, despite the ethical issues that a five-year-old faced with so many barriers hasn’t yet grasped — it was this very action that gave him some saving grace.
“For the next number of months and years, I would talk to that little nativity scene,” MacKinnon said. “That actually did help me quite a bit.”
This theme of faith continued throughout MacKinnon’s life and carries on today.
“I’m a Christian — I tend to believe that we’re all God’s children,” he said. “For me personally — anyone else’s religion as long as they’re not hurting anyone — that’s fine.”
In addition to faith, MacKinnon credits his grandparents — whom he referred to as “an oasis of normalcy” and other family members — for helping keep him on track. Sadly, his family was never truly able to recover and function as he would have liked. His mother died at an early age of cirrhosis. He and his father, with whom he was estranged for some time, did end up re-connecting.
“At the end, I would see him three to four times per year. We never talked about the past. We never brought it up. He became very proud of my background,” MacKinnon explained.
Considering his achievements and standing in politics, his father’s pride in him is understandable. A portion of his biography illustrates just a few of his accomplishments:
Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official. While at the White House, he served as a writer for two presidents. At the Pentagon, he served with a top-secret clearance in a joint command as a Special Assistant for Policy and Communications and also as a spokesman for the Department of Defense, briefing all of the major television networks. He later went on to become Director of Communications for Senator Bob Dole. Today, aside from being a principal in one of the world’s largest international law firms, he is also a regular contributor to several major newspapers, the influential web-based publications Townhall.com and The Huffington Post, and is syndicated on a regular basis.
“Rolling Pennies in the Dark” provides a first-hand account of an individual who experienced the welfare system and has now come out of the system on the other side. In speaking about his life, MacKinnon, a political conservative, said that he knew, even as a child, that the government was providing only enough for he and his family to survive. But what about making it beyond survival — what were the tools and methods that could help families, like his, escape poverty and prosper? It was this question that fed MacKinnon’s interest in politics at an early age.
When it comes to poverty, the successful speechwriter has some words for Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Democrats tend to take the poor for granted. Why? Because they know that those who do vote will vote for them. It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” he explained. “On the Republican side, they tend to ignore the poor. Why? Because, ‘Oh they’re not going to vote for us.’”
MacKinnon went on to say that “poverty, for the most part, is an accident at birth.” He seemed to drive a wedge in the center of both of the aforementioned mindsets when it comes to those suffering from poverty, as he said it’s important not to demonize those in need.
“The vast majority of people want the best for themselves…they want to move ahead…,” he said.
Get more information on “Rolling Pennies in the Dark” here.