Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Gipper's Centennial

He was born one hundred years ago today in Tampico, Illinois.

His family relocated several times during his childhood, moving throughout the state and eventually settling in the town of Dixon. His father was a hard-working but alcoholic shoe salesman. His mother, a born optimist and active member of the Disciples of Christ Church, provided the financially-strapped family with moral stability.

He excelled at sports, and at the age of 15 his first job was as a lifeguard on the Rock River. At Eureka College he played football, captained the swim team, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science and economics.

After college he worked in radio, broadcasting Iowa Hawkeyes football games and Chicago Cubs baseball games. At the age of 26, while traveling with the Cubs in California, he took a screen test for Warner Brothers and earned the lead role in the motion picture Love is in the Air. He went on to appear in 52 movies, and, contrary to what revisionists would later say, his performances were well-received by critics at the time.

World War II interrupted his acting career, but afterward he returned to Hollywood not only as an actor but as an important figure in the Screen Actors Guild. He served as its president for seven years, and it was in this role that he honed his leadership skills and learned the art of hard-boiled negotiation. In the 1950’s he became a television fixture as the host of GE Theater.

He married Jane Wyman in 1940 and they had three children -- two biological daughters, one of whom died at just a day old, plus an adopted son. After disagreements about his political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1947.

Two years later he met the love of his life, Nancy Davis. They married in 1952 and remained so until he died more than a half-century later, and together they had a daughter and son. Many observers consider their marriage to be America’s greatest true love story.

Although he spent time in the often-superficial world of Hollywood, he was a man of substance who thought critically about world affairs and sought to influence public policy. He eventually left the world of show business and emerged as a political titan who changed the course of history.

Because he became known as the ultimate conservative Republican, many people today are surprised to learn that he was a Democrat until the age of 51. He changed parties partly because his views moved rightward as he aged, but mostly because the party of his youth moved leftward and away from America’s founding principles. When asked why he switched, he quipped, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party -- the party left me.” He elaborated more on the issue in his autobiography, writing: “The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under the law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a longtime refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’”

The first time he ran for office, in 1966, he won the governorship of California. Four years later he was easily reelected. After narrowly losing his bid for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, he returned to win the 1980 nomination and defeated Jimmy Carter in the general election, becoming the 40th president of the United States. In 1984, he was reelected in a history-making landslide in which he won 49 of the 50 states.

When he stepped into the Oval Office in January 1981, communism was on the rise, freedom was in decline, and America’s economy was failing. Unemployment was high, and for those who were employed, the purchasing power of their money was evaporating because of double-digit inflation and 20 percent mortgage rates. But rather than be scared by the challenge, he embraced it.

On the economic front he created an environment in which entrepreneurial innovation could flourish. He did this by scaling back regulations that were burdensome and anti-competitive, and by dramatically lowering tax rates in all income brackets so that people would have more money in their pockets to spend as they saw fit. And last but not least, he championed entrepreneurs and the social benefits that derive from their businesses; unlike his political adversaries, he did not vilify business because he understood the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s warning that "you can not help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer."

The results were staggering. Inflation and unemployment were all but eliminated from being national issues, and incomes soared -- in fact, incomes soared so much that the total amount of money taken in by the government skyrocketed, even though the government was taking a much smaller percentage of each person’s income than it was before he was elected. Those who think government must raise taxes to raise revenue should take notice, because its annual revenue was much higher every year he was in office than it was in any year before he took office; and by the time he left office, its revenue was nearly twice what it was before.

On national defense and foreign affairs, his achievements were even more staggering. Instead of following his predecessor’s path of na├»ve appeasement, he drew a line in the sand and made it clear that America would not allow Soviet-sponsored tyranny to continue its assault against human liberty. He pushed back against the Soviets, first by installing intercontinental ballistic missiles in Western Europe, and then executing a brilliant squeeze play by rapidly building up our military technology and introducing the SDI (a “shoot their missiles down from space” initiative that his critics ridiculed by calling it “Star Wars”). The USSR tried to keep up because it was power-hungry, but could not do so because its top-down communist system was incapable of generating resources and innovations like America’s free-enterprise capitalist system. In the end, because he allowed America’s system to function without its hands tied, the inherent flaws of communism were exposed and the USSR itself -- along with the abusive power it had wielded over smaller nations -- collapsed like the house of cards it was.

Many “realists” thought the Cold War would last in perpetuity, but he, an “idealist,” brought it to an end by design and without firing a shot. And with the disappearance of the USSR and its control over other nations, millions of people throughout the world, especially Eastern Europe, were able to taste freedom for the first time. Today this man is a hero in their country as well as ours.

People who lived in fear of commissars in what was once East Germany, and of the Communist Party’s police state in what was once the Soviet Union, will tell you how in the 1980’s they were emboldened by the knowledge that an American president was finally standing up to their tormentors; how they were inspired by the knowledge that he was genuinely on the side of humanity and would not ignore their plight. They will tell you that without him, their freedom would never have come to be.

In Prague, the capital of a nation once held hostage by the Soviets, celebrations in this man’s honor are planned throughout this year to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. In London, the capital of a nation with whom he reaffirmed a heralded “special relationship,” a statue of him is being unveiled in Grosvenor Square.

Here in America, we should remember that he was a man imbued with humility despite his great accomplishments; that he was “the leader of the free world” but always knew it was about us and not about him; and that he did not gain entree to power because of inherited wealth or family connections, but instead earned his way up from a modest beginning in a small Midwestern town.

He gave speeches like no one else I have ever seen, because he believed what he said and everyone knew it. While Abraham Lincoln was called “Honest Abe” and Andrew Jackson was called “Old Hickory,” this president was called “The Great Communicator.” Everyone who saw him agreed that nickname fit, but, humble to the end, he disavowed it when he said this during his last speech before leaving office: “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

In that same speech, he summed up his love for America when he said this: “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…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, windswept, 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…After two hundred 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.”

He departed this earth in 2004, but that will not stop me from pausing today to say, “Thank you, Ronald Wilson Reagan.”



5 comments:

rendi said...

very, very nice! 100 years, hard to believe....

Jacquie said...

Just saw your comment on my blog... and wanted to stop by and say "hi"... but, I am in tears after having read your tribute to RR!!! Loved him. Nice post!

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi John, Thanks for a nice tribute to a fantastic American. Bet he would turn over in his grave now--if he could see what has happened to our precious country now.

We need a person like Reagan here right now to help us!!!! What an incredible man. Thanks so much for sharing.
Betsy

Dorothy said...

Thanks for stopping and leaving a comment on my blog.
Oh, how we miss Ronald Reagan! He was greatly admired and respected and a President we were proud of. You posted a great tribute to him. I loved him and his sweet wife. A real class act!!!!!

Dar said...

Well said, Well Said. I applaud such a wonderful tribute to one of our nation's greatest Presidents. How soon we forget our fortune to have known his 'heart' for our country. Thank you now, for reminding us of all he had done to keep us free. We are in such turmoil now. Like Betsy said, he would turn over in his grave...perhaps he sees and has answers if only D.C. would listen and Learn by example.
BlessYourHeart