Sunday, February 6, 2011

Observations on Ronald Reagan

RonaldReagan100Ronald Reagan, the nation’s 4oth president, was born a century ago today.  Like most presidents, he was on the public stage for a long time but, in his case, a good part was literally on the stage as an actor.  His first career, in fact, provided a very helpful springboard into politics.

My earliest recollection of Reagan was as the tall, handsome and very cowboy-looking host of the old Death Valley Days show.  He would introduce the half-hour show and then come back and offer a few additional words. 

I also remember him shuttling back and forth at the 1968 Republican convention.  The television image, again, showed a  confident man, offering an alternative to Richard Nixon. 

Eight years later, he seemed to be a more determined fellow, regularly scoring points on Gerald Ford in their quest for the Republican nomination.  Reagan came within a whisker of securing the nomination, which seemed highly surprising at the time, and immediately laid the groundwork for the next convention.

In 1979, I worked full-time on George Bush’s presidential campaign.  I was impressed by Bush’s credentials.  In my mind, Reagan could not possibly be elected.  But, of course, things all came to together for him and he easily defeated Bush and then incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Because of my Bush connections, I was able to join the Reagan administration.  And, like most, those eight years represented my closest observation of a man who has become a conservative icon.  Certainly, I remember his communication skills.  Sometimes not so great off the cuff, but perhaps unrivaled in his ability to deliver a powerful speech.  Sure, his acting skills helped—so what?  He exuded self assurance, resolve, humor and leadership.

Those were the qualities which made him admired by many and often grudgingly respected by those who disagreed with him.  There was another dimension, and that was a simple humanity.  He had a dogged commitment to promoting his political philosophy and policy goals.  And yet,  Democrats or those opposed him were never considered the enemy but rather those who had a different perspective on how to achieve what was best for America. 

Reagan was always positive and upbeat, rarely negative or critical.  His self-deprecation and geniality often diffused tense situations.  Perhaps more than anything, Ronald Reagan was a quiet, self-assured man who was seemingly at peace with people and the world. 

The record of the Reagan administration, as with all others, is mixed.  Historians and commentators will continue to debate his role in domestic and foreign affairs.  Did he help bring an end to the Soviet Union?  Was his brand of economics fair to all Americans?  What about Iran-Contra?  Just like his one-time political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan’s legacy will be praised and attacked.

But much can be learned from Reagan.  It is amusing to see various Republican politicians present themselves as an heir to Reagan.  It is amusing because Reagan himself would likely approach many issues differently in 2011 then he did in the 1980s; he was more pragmatic than many recall.  More importantly, they don’t seem to grasp that the magic of Reagan was really his reassuring, non-combative personality.

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