INTO THE SIDE SHOW
“I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
- Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan began his political affiliations as a Roosevelt Democrat, but shifted to Republicanism beginning in the early 1950s, endorsing Presidential candidacies Dwight D. Eisenhower(1952 and 1956) and Richard Nixon(1960). Going as far back as his tenure with General Electric Theater, Reagan had been required to give speeches.
These were frequently conservative in tone and written entirely by Reagan. Hence, and although he would later have speech writers in the White House, Reagan continued to be his own best editor – reshaping and evolving the themes and concepts to suit his own inimitable style and delivery.
In 1964, Reagan campaigned for Barry Goldwater, revealing his own ideologies in a memorable speech on Goldwater’s behalf on October 27, 1964. “The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people,” Reagan reasoned, “…and they knew when a government sets out to do that it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.”
The speech made a decided impression on California Republicans who took it to heart and successfully elected Reagan as their governor in 1966. It was a rocky relationship almost from the start and in hindsight seemed to reflect Reagan’s stalwart approach to politics.
For example; in 1968, Reagan attempted to test the presidential waters himself with disastrous results. He ultimately finished in third place on the Republican ticket. It was a minor embarrassment to Reagan who followed the defeat up with a major misfire at home. In 1969, Reagan called out the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement to Berkeley’s university campus to quell student protests. The incident eventually came to be known as ‘Bloody Thursday’ and forced Berkeley into a state of emergency. After the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst and demanded the distribution of food to the poor as trade for her release, Reagan jokingly quipped, “It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism.”
In 1970, Reagan was re-elected as Governor of California. Outspoken in support of capital punishment, Reagan’s second term in office helped to refine a political platform he would later ride to victory in the White House; advocating less government regulation of the economy and reduced taxation. In 1976, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford
in a bid to become the Republican Party's candidate for President.
Despite early victories in North Carolina, Texas, and California, Reagan ultimately lost in New Hampshire and Florida and lost the candidacy to Ford. However, in 1980 Reagan effectively defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter. In his inaugural address to the nation, given in the shadow of 52 hostages being held by Iran, Reagan revealed his promise for the future of America; promises that, by and large and in retrospect, he admirably fulfilled.
“The business of our nation goes forward,”
Reagan explained, “…We are a nation that has a government; not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people…
Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work; work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it… We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we're in a time when there are not heroes; they just don't know where to look…Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God…
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women…The crisis we are facing today… require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.”
It was this speech that set the tone for Reagan’s presidency; one aggressively pursued in policies that brought about substantial changes to both the domestic and world stage. Reagan’s resolve on matters of state never wavered, but his personal resolve was put to a dramatic test of faith on March 30, 1981 when would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. fired into an open crowd, wounding Reagan in the chest and narrowly missing his heart.
Coughing up blood, but maintaining his sense of wit, Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a collapsed lung where he jokingly told the attending physicians, “I hope you're all Republicans!” Though lead surgeon Dr. Joseph Giordano was not, he affectionately replied, “Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans.”
Despite the fact that Hinckley’s bullet had seriously injured Reagan, he recovered from this attempt on his life with remarkable speed and was released from the hospital on April 11 – a mere 12 days later. His approval rating shot to 73%.
Immediately following this attempt on his life, Reagan began to show the sort of hard as nails leadership that would eventually brand him a determinist. He made good on a 1980 campaign promise to appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice by nominating Sandra Day O'Connor to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart.
His critics were quick to attack his plans, but Reagan held firm on virtually all issues that crossed his desk. For example: when the Air Traffic Controllers violated a regulation prohibiting government unions from striking, Reagan ordered the employees back to work within 48hrs or face forfeiture of their tenured positions. It was a test of Presidential will versus union might. Ultimately, Reagan would fire 11,345 air traffic controllers and bust the union for disobeying his direct command.
Another problem immediately facing Reagan’s presidency was the economic slump America was in. Reagan’s across the board tax cuts – critics dubbed ‘Reaganomics’ - was responsible for a galvanic reinvigoration of the American economy. His Economic Recovery Tax Act was signed into law in 1981 and revised in 1986. Although the unemployment rate was to peak to a record 10.8% by Christmas of 1982, throughout the rest of Reagan’s presidency that figure steadily and significantly dropped.
As a result, sixteen million new jobs were created and inflation plummeted. There remains some debate even today as to the foresight in Reagan’s economic stimulus. Pundits have pointed out that Reagan’s reduced spending on Medicaid, Federal Education and food stamps benefited the rich and middle classes - not the poor.
There can be no doubt that Reagan viewed America as the land of opportunity. As such, it was the responsibility of the poor to seek out that opportunity and improve their own situations. Reagan sought to purge tens of thousands deemed to be ‘milking the system’.
But he also was quick to protect entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
To exercise America’s renewed supremacy on the world stage, Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ program generated a record 40% peacetime military buildup by 1985. Once again, the pundits saw this increase as a throwback to over-budgeted military spending that occurred immediately after WWII.
However, in 1983, 241 American servicemen were murdered by a suicide bomber in Beirut; an act of unprovoked aggression that Reagan publicly called ‘despicable’ and used to further illustrate the need for increased military spending. Two days after that attack, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade Grenada.
Reagan also escalated the Cold War by implementing new policies towards the Soviet Union; reviving the B-1 bomber program and producing the MX Peacekeeper missile. Becoming the first American president ever to address British Parliament, Reagan dubbed the Soviets ‘the evil empire’ and proudly predicted that Marxism-Leninism would soon become a thing of the past.
By the spring of 1983, Reagan had introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); a ground to space-based system that would protect the United States from attack by nuclear ballistic missiles. Opponents dubbed the project ‘Star Wars’ and argued that it was technological fancy at best. The Soviets, however, particularly leader Yuri Andropov, were thrust into an immediacy of grave concern.THE SECOND TIME AROUND
In hindsight, Reagan’s second term in office seems almost a given. By 1984 he was a beloved figure in American pop culture; a President to be parodied on The Tonight Show, but a man to be taken seriously elsewhere at home and on the world stage. Perhaps it was his actor’s training working overtime, but Reagan enjoyed his celebrity with the masses. He also knew how to laugh at himself.
When incumbent Walter Mondale
suggested that Reagan’s age was a valid precursor to his being considered for a second term in office, Reagan confronted the question head on, but with humoring. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,”
he told his audience during the second Presidential debate, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents youth and inexperience!”
The quip was well timed and solicited applause from the audience and even Mondale. That November, Reagan made a clean sweep of 49 of 50 states – the only loss being Minnesota; Mondale’s home state.
Reagan’s second term was early dogged by controversies; his first involving a visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg where he laid a wreath for the fallen soldiers with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Earlier, it had been determined that Nazi soldiers were also buried there. On the home front, Reagan’s laconic stance towards the growing HIV-AIDS epidemic garnered outrage from the gay and lesbian communities.
During the summer of 1985 Reagan underwent surgery to remove cancerous polyps from his colon and skin cancer cells in his nose. Reoccurring cells in his nose were removed successfully that October. In each case, Reagan was presented as the picture of health and vitality. In fact, he returned to work the same day as his surgeries with a ‘business as usual’ attitude that only endeared him further with the conservative base who by now perceived him as the salvation of their nation.
On October 27, 1986 Reagan made his aggressive stance on the war against drugs more concrete with the signing of an enforcement bill, openly criticized for promoting racial disparity in prison populations because of its differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenders. Critics also charged that the bill in no way reduced the availability of drugs on the street.
Once again, it was Reagan’s response to a national tragedy that brought the country together.
On January 28 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger
disintegrated in mid-air a mere 73 seconds after liftoff as a televised audience looked on in horror. Postponing his State of the Union Address, Reagan instead delivered one of the most moving speeches of his Presidency:
“… Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss…We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together…they, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
…The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
…There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, ``He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.'' Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth' to `touch the face of God.”
Three days later Reagan delivered an even more eloquent address during the Johnson Space Center memorial service that, in part read:
“We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief that we all feel, and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope. Our nation's loss is first a profound personal loss to the family and the friends and the loved ones of our shuttle astronauts. To those they left behind -- the mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, yes, and especially the children -- all of America stands beside you in your time of sorrow.
What we say today is only an inadequate expression of what we carry in our hearts. Words pale in the shadow of grief; they seem insufficient even to measure the brave sacrifice of those you loved and we so admired. Their truest testimony will not be in the words we speak, but in the way they led their lives and in the way they lost their lives -- with dedication, honor, and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe.…
We will always remember them, these skilled professionals, scientists, and adventurers, these artists and teachers and family men and women; and we will cherish each of their stories, stories of triumph and bravery, stories of true American heroes. …Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg, and Christa -- your families and your country mourn your passing.
We bid you goodbye; we will never forget you. For those who knew you well and loved you, the pain will be deep and enduring. A nation too, will long feel the loss of her seven sons and daughters, her seven good friends. We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God's promise of eternal life. May God bless you all and give you comfort in this difficult time.”
LAST ACT FINALES
It is fair to say that Reagan’s final years in office represented new challenges to his presidency that were met with varying and indifferent levels of success. Throughout Reagan’s presidency, political relationships between Libya and the United States were contentious at best.
In April 1986, the detonation of a bomb in a crowded Berlin discotheque (which resulted in 63 American military personnel being injured and one death of a serviceman) prompted Reagan to authorize a series of air strikes designed to halt Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ability to export terrorism around the world. Defending the strikes, Reagan concluded in a televised address that "When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I'm in this office."
The year was also marked by Reagan’s signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act that made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants but also granted amnesty to approximately 3 million illegals who had entered the U.S. prior to January 1, 1982.
But perhaps 1986 will remain best remembered as the year Reagan’s presidency was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal.
In essence, the administration was accused of funneling monies from covert arms sales to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had violated international law and Reagan was forced to profess general ignorance about its existence. During the resulting televised inquest, Reagan's popularity plummeted from 67 to 46 percent in less than a week.
To some extent, Ronald Reagan’s next challenge to newly appointed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was prompted by the very real fact that by 1980 the U.S.S.R had built a military arsenal and army surpassing that of the United States. Since the Revolution, the Soviets had been fronted by some very hard line communist dictators and by a stalwart lack of diplomacy with the U.S. Both countries thought of the other as their elemental threat.
Reagan, however, sensed a change in the wind with Gorbachev’s appointment and set out to forge a new alliance with ‘the enemy’ state.
At the same time, Reagan’s diplomacy had persuaded Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production; a move that caused gas prices to fall in the U.S. but crippled Soviet export revenues. A seemingly more liberal and open leader than his predecessors, Gorbachev agreed to meet Reagan for four summit conferences around the world: in Geneva, Iceland Washington and Moscow. Just prior to the third summit, Gorbachev announced his intention to pursue significant arms agreements with the U.S.
During this interim, Reagan also put forth a challenge to Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall, declaring that if the U.S.S.R. truly desired peaceful relations between the two nations, the exercised proof would be in Gorbachev tearing down this blockade that, for so long, had represented communist oppression.
Together, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces
(INF) Treaty at the White House in 1987. Passed into law the following year as Reagan was attending the final summit in Moscow, the treaty eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. Treated as a celebrity by the Russians while in Moscow, Reagan conceded that he no longer considered the Soviet’s the ‘evil empire’. In 1989, the world looked on with general amazement as the Berlin Wall – a cold war symbol of Soviet noncompliance for so many decades was torn down by eager revelers on both sides. Two years later, Communism was no more.
To say that the end of the Reagan Presidency in 1989 was the end of an era is putting things mildly. Despite political crises, health concerns and often formidable opposition to his plans for economic reform from the Democratic Party, Ronald Reagan had accomplished a staggering amount of the precepts he had set out to establish at the start of his first inaugural.
In his 34th and final address to the nation, Reagan continued to display the optimism and passion for the country he had presided over for 8 years.
“It's been the honor of my life to be your President So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve.
One of the things about the Presidency is that you're always somewhat apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass -- the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn't return. And so many times I wanted to stop and reach out from behind the glass, and connect. Well, maybe I can do a little of that tonight.
People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’ The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom; the sorrow - the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place…It's been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
…The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we're a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement, there's no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.
…But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents. Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I decided to break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the shops on Arbat Street -- that's a little street just off Moscow's main shopping area. Even though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognized us and called out our names and reached for our hands.
We were just about swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the possibilities in all that joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the crowd. It was an interesting moment. It reminded me that while the man on the street in the Soviet Union yearns for peace, the government is Communist. And those who run it are Communists, and that means we and they view such issues as freedom and human rights very differently.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust… I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don't, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It's still trust but verify. It's still play, but cut the cards. It's still watch closely. And don't be afraid to see what you see.
…Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I've got one that's been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I'm proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.
…But now, we're about to enter the nineties and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an un-ambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't re-institutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.
So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important… Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.
And that's about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill’. The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
We've done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America."
Immediately following his departure from Washington, the Reagans traveled between their Bel Air home and ranch in Santa Barbara. Once, in a long while, they would appear on behalf of the Republican Party.
In November 1991, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
was opened to the public with a dedication ceremony that included five presidents. Reagan’s final public address came on February 3, 1994 during a tribute in Washington; his last major appearance in April for the funeral of President Richard Nixon. But it was a hand written confession penned in August of that same year that proved the most stunning revelation of them all:
“I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease,” he wrote, “…at the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God give me on this earth doing the things I have always done…I know 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.”
As the years went on, the disease slowly eroded Reagan’s mental capacity. Questioned by CNN’s Larry King, Nancy Reagan confessed to the nation that her husband’s condition had worsened to the extent that he would like to be remembered as he had been and not as he currently was. As such, Reagan remained out of the public spotlight, sequestered to his beloved ranch where a fall and subsequent hip surgery did much to slow down this once vital man.
Ronald Wilson Reagan died in Bel Air, California on June 5, 2004 – ten years after his Alzheimer diagnosis. He was 93 years old. June 11 was declared a National Day of Mourning by President George W. Bush. Reagan's body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica and then, on June 7 to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. On June 9, Reagan's body was flown to Washington where he became the tenth United States president to lie in state; the first since Lyndon Johnson in 1973. During those thirty-four hours 104,684 people filed past the coffin.
On June 11, a state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral prompted heartfelt eulogies from both Presidents Bush, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and, perhaps most poignant of all, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (through pre-recorded address).
Today, Ronald Reagan’s presidential legacy remains open to debate. While some continue to laud him for his economic reform and bringing about an end to the Cold War, others have argued that his policies created a major deficit and sacrificed the U.S.’s reputation on the world stage.
To what extent Reagan’s fortitude brought about an end to communism has also been debated by pundits even though Gorbachev himself has said that "Reagan was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War;" a plaudit concurred by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who added that “Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty and he did it without a shot being fired.”
Reagan’s political views also helped to reshape the Republican Party as a modern conservative movement. More men voted Republican under Reagan; the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’
. In the final analysis, Reagan had become the iconic symbol of influence within the Republican Party.
Of his ability to connect with the masses – dubbed ‘The Great Communicator’
– Reagan himself had always been both modest and reflective; “I never thought it was my style that made a difference — it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”
Indeed, he had. As it turned out, Ronald Reagan proved a very tough act to follow.
In June 2005, The Discovery Channel
ran a popularity poll that asked its viewers to vote for The Greatest American
of all time: Ronald Wilson Reagan received that honorary title.@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).