Monday, February 16, 2015

Ronald Reagan

Simi Valley, California     Visited June 2013

I try to do a post on a president every February to commemorate President’s Day.  This is one I’ve been looking forward to – Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator.  The two terms of President Ronald Reagan happen to represent the polar opposites of my journey across the political spectrum.  We’ll get to that; but first here is my take on our 40th president.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born February 6, 1911, the second of two boys, in Tampico Illinois.  His upbringing was classic Middle America – his father was a salesman who moved the family around the mid-west following jobs, his mom a devoted mother and devout influence in his life.  Little Ron got the nickname “Dutch” early in life because he was a little on the chubby side and sported a ‘Dutch boy’ haircut.  

In high school Dutch Reagan engaged in sports and acting and worked as a lifeguard in the summer.  He enrolled at Eureka College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Illinois where some of the themes that characterized his future life began to emerge.  Reagan played sports, did theater, involved himself in student government, and graduated with a degree in economics and sociology. 

Wedding of Ronald Reagan and
Jane Wyman
Coming out of college Ronald Reagan fell immediately into the world of entertainment.  He took a job broadcasting Iowa Hawkeye football games and parlayed his natural talent into other sports broadcasting gigs.  Most notably he developed an ability to do play by play for Chicago Cubs broadcasts using just the wire feed.  On a road trip with the Cubs to the west coast in 1937 the 26-year-old Reagan did a screen test, which led to a seven-year movie studio contract.  It was also in 1937 that he joined the army reserve.  By the start of World War II in 1941 Ronald Reagan had already appeared in 30 Hollywood films and was voted one of the top younger actors in Hollywood.  He married his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, in 1938.   Reagan was called to active duty in 1942, but due to poor eyesight remained stateside for the duration of the war, producing training and fundraising films for the US Army film division. 

Dutch's low point in the movies

Maybe his greatest film moment -
the indelible 
 'Win one for the Gipper'

Studio photo
Following the war Reagan resumed his Hollywood career.  While he continued to make pictures through the 1950’s, Ronald Reagan never made it to the first ranks of Hollywood leading men.  He did become influential in the film business, however, serving multiple terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.  His leadership in the SAG included the black list period of the early fifties and Reagan’s staunch anti-communism caught him somewhat reluctantly into the hunt for communists in Hollywood.  It was apparently these political impulses that helped bring about the end of his first marriage in 1949.  Later that year Reagan met another actress, Nancy Davis, and in 1952 they were married.  Reagan had two children with Jane Wyman and two children with Nancy.  Nancy would become his lifelong love and their marriage was by all accounts close and affectionate through the end of his days. 

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis in the film
that brought them together

Governor Reagan

Ronald Reagan began his political career as a democrat, campaigning for Harry Truman in 1948.  But his increasingly conservative views led him to support Eisenhower and later Richard Nixon in their presidential campaigns.  He eventually switched to the Republican Party in 1962.   In 1964 he emerged onto the national scene as political player with his rousing A Time for Choosing speech  in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican presidential convention.  He won the governorship of California in 1966 on a promise to ‘send the welfare bums back to work and clean up the mess at Berkley’ (in reference to perpetual student demonstrations).  His confrontations with protesters and use of force to quell dissent made him something of a polarizing figure, but he was popular enough to win a second term in 1970. 

In 1976 Reagan launched his first serious challenge for the White House, losing a primary battle to incumbent Gerald Ford.  But in 1980 he was able seize on the Iran hostage crisis and hard economic times to mount a winning campaign against the vulnerable Jimmy Carter.  On January 20, 1981 Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States, bringing in what he had termed during the campaign as ‘morning in America’.  At 69 years old he was the oldest candidate ever elected to a first term as president.  The first days of his presidency were eventful.  On Inauguration Day the Iran Hostages were released after 444 days of captivity.  On March 30, 1981 he was the target of an assassination attempt by a mentally ill John Hinckley, Jr.  Reagan was seriously wounded and near death when arrived at the hospital but was stabilized and later recovered completely, becoming the only president in US history to survive a wound from an assassination attempt.  

A list of keywords from Reagan’s first term would be:  Air Traffic Controllers Strike, Supply-side economics (also called trickle-down economics or Reaganomics), Sandra Day O’Connor, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or, derisively, ‘star wars’), the Beirut bombing, Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada), and the War on Drugs. 

The Teflon President and the Iron Lady in a golf cart

Ronald Reagan was re-elected in a historic landslide victory over Walter Mondale 1984.  Notable keywords from his second term include the Libya bombings, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Gorbachev Summits, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, Tip O’Neill and the Iran-Contra Affair, Perestroika, and the Iron Lady.

In retrospect, his presidency has been called the Reagan Revolution – a remaking of conservatism as a dynamic political force in domestic affairs and a hard line stance against communism that set the stage for the dramatic and largely peaceful fall of the Soviet communist system.  Critics claim that Reagan was an out of touch leader and his revolution set back civil rights and led to the economic bust of the early 1990’s.  But there is no disagreement on the reality that Ronald Reagan was the most culturally and globally influential president in the second half of the 20th Century.  Among the various presidential ranking polls Ronald Reagan averages out to around 15th on lists of the greatest presidents. 

Ronald Reagan became know as 'The Great Communicator' because of his remarkable ability to connect with the American people and capture the sense of a moment in a way that raised the stature of the presidency.  Consider these examples:

  • As the Representative of the American People - January 28, 1986 - addressing the nation following the Challenger Disaster

After leaving the White House the Reagans moved to California and the former president enjoyed a number of years of growing stature as the elder statesman of the conservative movement.  In 1994 at the age of 83 Reagan publicly disclosed that he had Alzheimer’s disease.  His frank and personal letter to the nation about his illness raised awareness of the disease and represented the last and most poignant public act of ‘the Great Communicator’. 

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease... At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done... I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.

Five Presidents

Though he stayed active for as long as he could, Reagan lived for ten years in a gradually degenerating condition, his last few years with only Nancy as a regular presence in his life.  On June 5, 2004 at his home in Bel Air, CA President Ronald Reagan passed into history.  Over 100,000 paid their respects as he lay in state in the US Capitol Rotunda.  He was buried in a site overlooking the Simi Valley just outside of the Reagan Presidential Library. 

Mikhail Gorbachev at Ronald Reagan's State Funeral

My son Grant and I had the chance to visit the Reagan Museum and his tomb at the Reagan Library.  The Museum is a wonderfully conceptualized and beautifully designed walk through the Reagan era, and includes the full Air Force One in a special public hangar.  It is well worth a visit if you’re in California. 

My son Grant and Air Force One at the Reagan Library and Museum

I never saw Ronald Reagan in person.  But earlier I mentioned how the Reagan presidency highlights my radical change in political orientation.  Here’s the story. 

When I was a senior in college Ronald Reagan was running in his first presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter.  It was during my phase Marxist years and, as a leftist political science major, I should have been all wrapped up in the political moment.  But it was college and there were so many distractions…  Anyway, I woke up one morning and realized that it was Election Day.  So I borrowed a car and went into town to vote.  When I got there they asked me if I was registered.  I said, ‘No, I’m an American citizen’.  When it dawned on me that I had missed that one little necessary detail of American civics I decided to go back to school to await the outcome as a non-combatant in the political process.  One thing I did know is that it was unthinkable that Ronald Reagan – a conservative! – could win the election.  Which of course is just what happened.  Of course, by the time they called the results we had been at a party anticipating a great democratic win.  Incensed by defeat, aghast at the project of four years of Republican rule and a little looser in judgment than we should have been, my friend Rick and I found some spray paint begging to be put into political use.  There was a wall located just outside the student union building that everyone had to pass in order to go to class.  We felt it needed a paint job.  With words.  So we (as artfully as possible under the circumstances) covered the wall with the immortal words:  “Ronald Reagan – an actor playing his greatest role”.  Ok, it wasn’t Berkley in the Sixties.   But it seemed radical at the time.  

Your blogger with Dutch at the Reagan Museum and Library
A year later I had renounced the Marxism I had embraced in college and, in the next election – my first as a bona fide registered voter – I cast my vote for the Gipper.  I’ve been a fan ever since.