Ronald Reagan: A Personal Reflection

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.

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Another personal reminiscence of Reagan

Dan’s has encouraged me to contribute this equally personal post. I was a college student when I cast my first vote for Nixon in 1960. This enraged my family as they were not only Democrats but distant cousins of the Kennedy family of Boston. My mother later claimed she had always been a Republican but I knew better. I had changed from the family affiliation after taking a course in economics. I’m not sure if what is taught today in basic economics in most colleges would have the same effect.

I was not a fan of Reagan, at first, as Governor. I still had some residual liberalism and he ran against the University of California at Berkley in his campaign. I was a medical student and well aware of the antics of many UC students and alleged students but it still annoyed me. I thought the U of California was above such criticism. The 1968 USC graduating class, sophomores when I was a senior, had a serious drug problem, a sign of the times but still frightening. As I was student body president, the Dean called me in to talk about it. From him I learned that about 22 of the 66 students in that class were using LSD. Some later never graduated or never finished internships. I gradually became more of a Reagan fan. I think it was maturity.

When Jimmy Carter was elected, I was in practice. My wife and I were taking our first trip to England. I remember being ashamed that Carter was president. I thought, “Well, he can’t be too bad. After all, he has been a businessman.” He was. He made the same mistake that Obama did. He let Congress and the Democratic majority have its head in legislation. The 1974 class of Democrats in Congress was the most leftist in history. Inflation took off. I knew doctor colleagues who were buying bags of quarters and dimes for their pension plans. Others had Swiss bank accounts with gold coins (It had only become legal to own gold under Ford). The Swiss charged negative interest of about 2% on those accounts. Two other friends, both doctors, opened a crystal shop in Laguna Beach and became the largest sellers of Lalique crystal in the world. The company brought them to France to honor them. Everybody was fleeing the dollar.

The conventional wisdom said Reagan was too conservative to ever be elected. The present rhetoric about Sarah Palin is similar to that about Reagan. He certainly was better qualified than she is but it didn’t matter. He was “an amiable dunce”(Clark Clifford) or he was a madman determined on a nuclear war. The Democrats who are trying to conflate Reagan and Obama would just as soon you didn’t remember that. I watched all the debates. I was shouting at the TV the night that Ford made his gaffe about Poland which elected Carter. I was worried about Reagan and how he would do. Here is where we all learned about his charm and his ability to slough off nasty comments by opponents. His skill with repartee and humor made him president. He looked like a reliable father figure and the attacks just bounced off. The only other president in my memory who was as immune to attack was Eisenhower but that was an earlier, pre-Nixon coup era. His “Great Communicator” title is often meant by Democrats as a slur, implying that was all he was. What I mean, and I think it is true, is that without that talent, he would not have been elected, as bad as Jimmy Carter was. That attacks on Reagan have been forgotten but they were harsh and had some resonance until the debates.

About the time Reagan was elected, I was able to purchase Treasury 5 year notes with a coupon rate of 16% and a real rate of 18%. My partner built a new custom house. The construction loan interest rate was 21%. Two neighbors built new custom homes on either side of him. When the houses were finished, the neighbors, both professionals, could not qualify for the permanent financing and the two houses went into foreclosure. That was 1979.

I following the administration closely, which had the Senate in Republican hands, but the House was dominated by Democrats and Tip O’Neill. Reagan’s most destructive enemy those first two years was Bob Dole, a true “root canal Republican.” He convinced himself that the Reagan tax cuts would lead to deficits “as far as the eye can see,” as Democrats put it. It was he, the Senate Majority Leader, who made the tax cuts effective only in 1982. As a result, the deep recession, brought on by Paul Volker’s battle with inflation, extended to the end of 1982 and cost the Republicans the Senate. Once the tax cuts became effective, the economy took off and it was clear sailing for a while, more than ten years and beyond to 2000.

Reagan’s era coincided with my becoming an adult. I wish we had someone like him now but we will not see his like again.

Reagan Roundtable: The Lessons of the Reagan ’84 Campaign by James Frayne

by James Frayne.

On 7 October 1984, just a few weeks before the November election day, President Reagan’s campaign suffered a serious setback. Having put in an unconvincing performance in the first Presidential debate against Democrat challenger Walter Mondale, serious questions were being raised about the President’s age, health, and his ability to lead America through difficult times. To some observers, he did not appear to be in full command of the details of his administration. Attention immediately turned to the second debate, on 21 October.

The initial reaction of some campaign staff was to ensure that Reagan was prepared for the next debate by force-feeding him stats on every conceivable subject. But the campaign finally worked out that this approach risked getting in the way of what voters liked best – Reagan’s character and charm. They realized the best way of getting the President to put in a winning performance was by letting him be himself – by letting Reagan be Reagan.

In You are the Message, Republican media consultant Roger Ailes (now of Fox News) talks of being brought in to help prepare Reagan for the second debate. Ailes describes seeing Reagan forced to listen to endless advice, with consultants constantly rebuking him for not remembering detail. “Every time they finished a round, somebody in the audience would raise a hand and say, ‘Mr President, the tonnage on that warhead is wrong. The date of that treaty was so-and-so’”.

Ailes told the team to cancel the mock debates and give him access to the President for a couple of hours. “’If you give me that’, I told them, ‘he’ll win. If you don’t you’ll probably lose.’ I realized that sounded presumptuous, but actually I was gambling on Reagan and his innate gift of communication. I felt pretty sure that if I could get him back to being himself again, he’d be okay.”

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Reagan Roundtable: Losing the Soul of the Reagan Revolution by Dr. Steven Metz

By Dr. Steven Metz

Those who claim to be the inheritors of the Reagan revolution badly misunderstand it. It was never about specific policies but tone and style. It won out over both Democrats and Communists because it offered better ideas and–importantly–a positive vision. Reagan was much less interested in discrediting his opponents than in inspiring supporters.

Led by Newt Gingrich and taken to hysterical heights by pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, Reagan’s better ideas and positive vision gave way to deep negativity. Rather than better ideas, they offer only an unending spew of attacks against Democrats and the political left.

The commentary on the Egypt crisis by those who would claim to be Reagan’s descendents is a perfect illustration. Nearly everything they say at least begins with a slam on the Democrats, especially Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Making the Middle East more stable and furthering American interests is almost an afterthought, tacked on after the flames directed at the Democrats.

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Reagan Roundtable – The Lightweight

I am very much looking forward to the contributions that we will be getting here on the Reagan Roundtable. I am sure there will be some excellent reading to come.

I am without a doubt an intellectual lightweight when it comes to the topic and this entry will no doubt be one of the weakest of the Reagan Roundtable, but I did live through the time and would like to share a few thoughts.

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