Today, February 6, 2011 marks the centennial of the birth of Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States and by most historical opinions a transformational figure in American history. The number of truly transformational presidents can be counted on one hand; Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. These men all practiced reconstructive and transformational politics that lead the country away from stagnant and ineffective leadership. One can quibble over the politics of the men, but the fact that they were leaders as opposed to the status-quo, and sent the country on a different path to the future is a testament to their vision and leadership style.
I often tell my American History 1945-to-the Present, students that as opposed to using secondary sources to study a subject; as one would when looking back into the decades preceding World War II, that I stand before them as a primary source, since I have first-hand experienced much of the history we would be studying. This is the case with Ronald Reagan.
My first introduction to Reagan was unrelated to politics as I would be allowed to watch the General Electric Theater, which Reagan hosted, on Sunday evenings whenever there was school holiday on Mondays. Later, in my teens, he was a familiar figure with a cowboy hat that hosted Death Valley Days. Reagan made no impact on me in those early years and it was not until November of 1968 that I was introduced to his leadership style.
After Vietnam, I was married and stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky and we were expecting our first child in April 1969. We decided to move my wife home to be near her parents and undertook a cross country drive to California. Just after sunset, three days later, we crossed over the Colorado River on I-10 and were met with two things that signaled that we were back in what at the time was the “Golden State.” First, was the roadway, brightly lit as far as one’s headlights carried, with little glass reflectors that were an invention of a Cal-Trans engineer named Botts. They had been installed after I had joined the army and California was the only state in the nation to have them. Driving in the desert that night, the first California radio station we tuned in was carrying a live interview with then Governor Ronald Reagan. As I drove along, and listened to him discuss the affairs of California and the state of the nation after changing leadership with the election Nixon a couple of weeks earlier, I was struck by the tenor of the way he presented his convictions. I was still naive about most politics and frankly had not formed any political affiliation, but listening to his positive message about individuality and the human spirit that night, left me with a very favorable impression. To reveal my ignorance about the history of Bott’s Dots, I was initially left to credit Reagan with lighting our way across the California desert that night, only to learn later, they were approved the summer before he was elected.
Reagan as governor on a personal level did not really cross my radar. The economy of the early 1970′s allowed me, just out of the Army and a student to purchase my first home. Being a Vietnam Veteran I shunned anti-war protests and was focused on re-entering the work force and remained non-political. Later, after Reagan left office and the decade dragged on to introduce double digit inflation and equally double digit interest rates, Reagan again appeared on my radar. The election of 1980, amid the Iranian Hostage Crisis saw the myth that has never been fully discredited that as soon as Reagan was sworn in and 20 minutes into his speech, the hostages were released and flown to Algeria. The myth of what awaited the Iranians had they not released the hostages, persists to this day and has enhanced Reagan’s reputation of being ready to use force to protect and project American power.
I can honestly attest that for this son of a broken home, who without financial support of family put himself through college on the GI bill; the 1980′s under Reagan was a decade that saw me fulfill the American Dream. In that decade, and its aftermath, I founded my own business and saw my personal wealth grow far beyond that of my parents. Upon reflection, most Americans look back on the 80′s, decried by some as one of “greed” and see it as one of pivotal improvement in their lives.
As noted in the beginning of this post, Reagan was a transformational leader who changed the course of history. Perhaps the most telling of Reagan’s legacy is that in 2008, the election of Barak Obama was hailed by some as a chance to add a sixth person to the club of transitional presidents. It has been accurately reported that President Obama is diligently studying Reagan’s presidency and reading Lou Cannon’s biography, “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” perhaps to channel some of Reagan’s magic.