Saturday, February 6, 2010

Once There Was A President

Though not exactly in a log cabin, on this day in 1911, Nelle Reagan gave birth to a future President on the second floor of a commercial building in Tampico, Illinois. I take no small (and undeserved) pride in the fact that the future President was born in my birth state and moved on to the White House in the Sky after an illustrious career built in my adopted state.

This post will not be a biography of the great Ronald Reagan, nor will it be some sort of detailed analysis of his entire life, complete with pithy comments on his predecessors and successors. It will instead be a personal view of my long-distance "relationship" with one of the most important politicians and statesmen of the twentieth century.

I first came to know a little about Ronald Reagan as a small child seeing the movie classic (?) Bedtime for Bonzo, and later as a young adult watching him as the host of TV's Death Valley Days. Frankly, I found him a little wooden and ordinary, and didn't give him any more thought, although I also saw him later in a couple of movie revivals in which I saw a very fine actor who was neither wooden nor ordinary.

It wasn't until I left home, went off to the university, and became a member of the Berzekeley Brigade (aka, the Cal Crazies) that I started taking notice of the up-and-coming leader of the armies of the enemy--the conservatives. I remember having a poster on my dorm wall, with Ronald Reagan in a wig, bearing the legend "Ronald Reagan is Ayn Rand in drag." As a proud member of the "new left," I abhorred Reagan's speechifying about how out-of-control we were. I was particularly contemptuous of anyone who would desert his Democratic roots and become (shudder) a Republican. How could such a man be trusted?

By the time he ran for the job as Governor of California, we lefties were in full-throated rebellion against the entire "establishment." And he had run on two recurring themes: "Send the welfare bums back to work, and clean up the mess at Berkeley." What mess?," I thought. He's trying to suppress our freedom of speech (but deep down inside I was beginning to wonder if he was really only trying to suppress our right to riot). As the antiwar demonstrations became more pointedly anti-American and anti-military, I was already beginning to drift away from my angry rhetoric and back toward my family's patriotic roots. But still, this guy's picking on us. Phooey.

By his second term as governor, and first toe into presidential politics, I was starting to listen more and more to what he had to say. By then I was married, had a baby on the way (we subsequently had two more--a total of girl-boy-girl), we had just bought our first home, and I was working my way up in corporate management. After finishing at Cal, I moved my studies over to San Francisco State, where the student demonstrations took on a much broader and sinister tone, particularly the Black Students Rebellion (which ultimately resulted in the first Black studies curriculum in the nation). I was trying to study political science, and one of my professors (later the chairman of the SF State history department) had dropped a bomb that got me thinking about both Reagan and the course education was taking. Said professor Arthur Mejia, "and now let's move on to the deaf, dumb and blind Don Quixote of the twentieth century--Woodrow Wilson." Not only did that run counter to the progressive view endemic already in academia, but it seemed to echo some thoughts I had had years earlier, and sounded a bit like some of the things Reagan was saying.

But I was not yet ready to surrender, even though I had to admit to myself that when Reagan announced of our demonstrations "if they want a bloodbath, let's give them a blood bath," I was impressed. Hmmm, I think he's talking about us, and despite all logic, I began to think "in another context, I think I might really like this guy." I wouldn't consider voting for a Republican (or even a moderate Democrat), but something about the man kept me listening to him. In his second run for governor, he defeated machine politician and manipulator extraordinaire Jesse Unruh (known to political buffs as "Big Daddy"). I had developed a disgust for the Democratic machine, and after voting for Unruh, I left radical politics permanently. Reagan finished his second term as governor, and for awhile dropped out of the public eye while he consolidated his troops within the Republican Party. Since I would never be a Republican, I gave him no further thought, even though I sort of missed his speeches.

By 1976, Reagan was back in the public fray. He had been very anti-Nixon, and from my viewpoint, that meant he couldn't be all bad. He challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and advanced the agenda of one of my other former hate-objects, Barry Goldwater. Considering the drubbing Goldwater had suffered at the hands of Lyndon Johnson, I figured the challenge was going nowhere. Little did I know. But Reagan lost the nomination, and once again I gave him little thought, particularly since I was fooled by Carter's pretensions and anti-establishment campaign. "Well," I thought, "the Democratic Party can be saved after all." It didn't take long for me to realize that we had replaced the weak Gerald Ford with the even weaker Jimmy Carter. I began to look for solid American leadership within the Democratic Party, and never found it.

When Reagan secured the Republican nomination in 1980, I found myself at a crossroad. The Democratic Party had continued to drift left, while I was continuing to drift toward the center. The President has one job, and only one that matters--to lead. Jimmy Carter couldn't lead a horse to water, and that left only one other prominent Democrat for the nomination--Teddy Kennedy. Sensing that I had the choice between no leadership and horrific leadership, I voted for Carter in the primary. But I knew I was about to find myself doing something I swore I would never do--vote across party lines. To my mild irritation, Reagan was amazing during the campaign. Regardless of whatever else I might think, it was clear the Republicans had nominated a man who was self-confidently a leader. During the presidential debates, I waited for him to do that said shaking of his head, followed by "there you go again." I asked God for forgiveness, went into the ballot booth, and voted for Reagan.

I was right in doing so, even though I voted for the Democrat in the next three presidential cycles (I guess I figured Reagan had brought us back from the brink, so it was safe to vote for a Democrat again). But during both of his presidential terms, I constantly found myself defending or praising him to my Democrat buddies. When he was ruthlessly mocked for calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," my vocal reaction was always the same: "Well, they are evil, and they are a communist empire, so they're an evil empire. What's so hard to understand about that?"

Even his own speechwriters cringed when Reagan would take a speech away from them and insert his own words. Scrapping their words, Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and demanded "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Now that's leadership. He announced "Star Wars," again to great ridicule from the left, and I saw the wisdom in it. We can win the cold war without firing a shot, and look like the good guys while doing it. Call it the Strategic Defense Initiative, and then offer the technology to the enemy, since it's solely for defense, right? The Soviet Union was in complete disarray, people were lined up for blocks in Moscow to buy a loaf of bread that wouldn't be there by the time they got to the head of the line, most of the Soviet money had already been spent on multiple redundant weapons of war, and now Reagan was proposing to hand them a very, very, very expensive defense technology. All they had to do was pay for it out of non-existent Soviet money. It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, and I couldn't have been happier.

Ignoring massive demonstrations throughout Europe, Reagan put cruise missiles in place on their territory (on US bases, of course). He regularly threw American politicians completely for a loop. He outraged rightists by making nice with Gorbachev, then outraged the left by defying him. He made peace overtures at just the right time, and rattled the sabers at just the right time, usually defying conventional wisdom in both cases. That's what true leaders do. Ignore the flak, and destroy the enemy's home bases (politically speaking, I should add). As one of the mourners said at Reagan's funeral, "I doubt that we will see his like again in our lifetimes."

By the time he stood his ground on supply-side economics and restored America's belief in itself as the economic engine that powered the world, I was fully aboard intellectually. Still, it took one more political promise from a Democratic president in 1992 that was tossed out the window by 1994 for my final conversion to the Republican Party. I haven't voted for a Democrat since, and I doubt I ever will. As the great man himself said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, it left me."

So amid the many blogs and news items that will do honor to him today, I simply want to say a very personal "Thank you, Mr. President, for making my conversion as painless as possible." Without him, I doubt that any politician could ever have effected that subtle but ongoing change in my political beliefs. I had long since begun practicing law, and taught constitutional law, but it took a Reagan to make me see that it wasn't just an intellectual exercise. I truly cling to the Constitution and the greatness of the Founders. He made me feel the strength of America rather than just thinking about it. And if the recent election results are any indication, it is as he said, "morning in America" once again.

No President in my lifetime has ever been the leader and inspiration that was Ronald Reagan. He was "American" in every way, and apologized to nobody for it. Sure his views were too conservative for my tastes those many years ago, and by my current standards, frequently too moderate or liberal. But he knew the goal. Restore America to its rightful place at the top of the heap, and do it in a manner that recognizes political realities without surrendering the goals of the Founders. Listen to the voice of the people, not to the talking-heads or pollsters. Make a mistake, admit it and correct it. Be willing to admit that a personal political view might detour the ship of state, and adjust. Risk the displeasure of the political establishment and the mainstream media. It's all leadership, and boy, what a leader he was.

I apologize for the length if this article, but it is hard to express the admiration I have for a former political enemy who was instrumental in my long transition from scruffy student political agitator to reasonable America-loving grandfather of eight. God bless Ronald Reagan and his beloved United States of America.

16 comments:

StanH said...

Very nice Lawhawk! It sounds to me, like when you’re a kid, and get into a fight with another kid, and as time moves on you become good friends.

Reagan was a hell of a natural chess player, he always seemed two steps ahead of his adversaries. In ’76 if he’d of pushed, we may not have had to suffer through Carter, but the old Republican guard, “it’s Ford’s turn,” damn. When he began to make moves in late ’79 and into ‘80 he was attacked viciously by establishment Republicans/Washington, G.H.W. Bush coined the term “Voodoo Economics” when Reagan would espouse the brilliance that is “Supply Side Economics.” Not to be outdone the MSM telling us about senility, a war monger, and even the “great” eh…hmm…Walter Cronkite said that Jimmy Carter is a smarter man, in other words Reagan is dumb. Thank God the American peoples wisdom sent Carter back to Plains, GA. and 1980 was truly morning in America. I too like most people on this board could write chapter and verse about the great Reagan, I see it as an honor to have been a young man/businessman/husband and known this great man.

Who will be our next Reagan?

LawHawkSF said...

StanH: I hadn't thought of it that way, but it does sound like the analogy of the two kids who become friends.

I've met three Presidents personally, but sadly he was not among them. American Heritage Magazine used to do a series called "My Encounter With History." It was about contributors who had met great people. My brush was more like ships that pass in the night.

When I was serving as a planning commissioner in Simi Valley from 1978 to 1982, we had a large parcel of land that was dedicated to public use that we wrangled over for nearly three years. It was on County land between Simi Valley and Moorpark, but in our sphere of influence. We spent considerable time over that period of time debating its final use.

After I had left the commission following a change in the political landscape and appointment to the bench, the commission that came after us tentatively set it aside for the eastern county government center, courthouse and sheriff's station. But it was never finalized. Shortly after I left town, it was re-designated finally by another commission for a totally different use--the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Needless to say, my reaction was stunned (I hadn't made the transition yet). Their plans included a huge building holding Air Force One. Years later I thought to myself "why didn't we think of that?" It became his final resting place.

AndrewPrice said...

Reagan is my favorite president by far. I also think he was the most important President we ever had. He ended the downward spiral that began in the late 1950s and was spending this country toward dissolution. He gave American back its strength, its purpose, it's sense of what it meant to be an American. Without that, we could easily have followed Europe into irrelevance.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I would certainly put him up there in the pantheon, along with Washington, Lincoln, and if I may be forgiven, Reagan's own FDR. Each faced a nation in crisis, and all became the leaders we needed to bring America back from the brink. I'm far more critical of FDR than Reagan himself was, but that's a whole different story.

StanH asked who will be our next Reagan. I understand what he's saying, but there will never be another Reagan. The leader we need now needs many of Reagan's traits (as well as Washington's and Lincoln's), but if we literally look for another Reagan, we will fail. We need a leader who is like Reagan for those issues that remain perpetually before us, but who understands that 2012 is not 1980 (Reagan himself would certainly understand this). The combination of dynamism, practicality, an ear for the public will, and the strength of will to do what is necessary is a rarity. I have yet to see that leader emerging, but any of the leading contenders within the Republican Party would beat Obama if they can just be 80% as good as Reagan (where did I get that number?).

patti said...

reagan was the first president i voted for (18!), much to the distress of my democratic family. they said, "an actor" ~spitpitspit~

later, as reagan rocked our collective world, voting for him became my shining moment in a family full of previous unbelievers.

they should have known they were in political trouble with me, when as a 7th grader, i drew a derisive political cartoon about carter that got published in my school paper. scandal!

LawHawkSF said...

Patti: We must be kindred spirits, sort of. I did the same thing, only my caricature was of Richard Nixon. To this day he's the only president I can draw a picture of and have it be instantly recognizable. My artistic skills leave a great deal to be desired.

Reagan was the second Republican presidential candidate I voted for, but the first where I didn't throw up after doing it (see Nixon, above).

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--I think that Reagan's true genius lay in his understanding of the power of the federal government combined with his gut belief that the Constitution clearly limited what that power was. As a result, he strengthened America's foreign policy and military strength while attempting to cut back its reach domestically (the latter was only partially successful). He saw the danger in a growing government by bureaucracy unaccountable to the public, and tried to strangle it.

LawHawkSF said...

HamiltonsGhost: That is probably the key issue from which all his actions proceeded. It is a foundational belief in the primacy of the Constitution and the job of the president to lead in the areas granted him in Article II, most particularly "to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

CalFederalist said...

LawHawk. Didn't they also rename a freeway in his honor?

Tennessee Jed said...

I am a huge Reagan fan even if I still think G.W. was the "indespensible man." Like you, Hawk, he was lost and then was found.

LawHawkSF said...

CalFed: Yep. While I was on the commission we fought hard to finish the proposed freeway from the San Fernando Valley into eastern Ventura County (the vast majority of the residents of the then-bedroom community of Simi Valley worked in the big valley). After much hard work and fighting with Los Angeles politicians, we succeeded, and the clumsily-named Simi Valley-San Fernando Valley freeway was born (we locals called it 118, the old designation for the previous state highway, or simply the Simi Freeway). Appropriately, by joint resolution of Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and CalTrans, the freeway was renamed The Ronald Reagan Freeway in 1994 (usually just referred to as the Reagan Freeway). And it has a special exit for the Reagan Library.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: Like you, the historian and federalist comes out in me, and I firmly believe that without Washington, there would have been no Lincoln, FDR or Reagan. Washington always looked to the interests of the infant nation and saw the future beyond. He could have been king, or president for life, just for the asking, but instead put his nation first and established the concept of the orderly transition of power based on the will of the people.

Since you haven't left town yet--two things. First, in response to your request, my Diary this coming week will feature a picture of the San Francisco Federal Crosley Radio Building (LOL), so you'll have to get to someone's computer or wait with baited breath until you return home to see it.

Second, say hello to my former colleagues at Maui Divers Jewelry (actually they moved their headquarters to Honolulu years ago, but still operate many stores on all the islands, under the names Maui Divers, Island Pearls, and Pick-A-Pearl). The company was literally founded by two guys who loved diving off Maui, found some rare coral, and built a very successful business around it. Don't bother mentioning my name on the outer islands, though. I was only connected to the main office and the operations here on the mainland. They run a great operation, but my connection to the company was broken after the crash in '08, and they wisely wound down their operations in California and Nevada. Great pearl jewelry (from South Seas and Tahitian to very affordable freshwater), and exclusive coral creations.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - thanks for the input on Maui Divers. I actually leave Tuesday and will report in after my return. (there are a couple stateside stopovers on the way home.) Unbelievably, I have not been to Hawaii before, but should have ample time to check out a lot of different things. Sorry I have to miss the book club, though. Keep hitting them out of the park while I'm away.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: Have a great time in aloha land. The irony for me is that I've also never been to Hawaii. We set up trips there on several occasions, but something here on the mainland always seemed to get in the way. Imagine, an all-expenses paid trip to the islands, and I blew it. I guess I got older, but not much wiser. Phone and video conferences made it too easy to avoid the trip.

By the way, to avoid sounding like a haole, don't make a very common mistake. When it says "mahalo" on all the trashcans you see, it doesn't mean "trashcan," it means "thank you." You'll be a real Hawaiian when you can say humuhumunukunukuapua'a without stuttering. It means "trigger fish," and it took me months of practice to get it right. Admittedly, it took me another few months to work it into a conversation.

Writer X said...

Unapologetic about who he was, what he believed, and what he stood for--you hit the nail on the head. I miss him. No politician--Dem or Republican--has come close to rivaling his leadership abilities either.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: Isn't that true, and isn't it sad how our current president demonstrates what happens when there's no leadership at all?

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