For much of my post-college years I proved to be much more liberal in my political and social views than many of my life-long friends. I can recall – with general fondness – the abuse I used to take at the hand of life-long friends during discussions that tended to spring up when young working-class guys get together over beers or maybe a card game. Looking back at it now, it seems odd that so many of them held such conservative views, when all of us grew up in a blue-collar, urban environment that would normally be viewed as traditionally more liberal than conservative.
But I learned to live with it.
Then Jimmy Carter was elected President. When Carter made his “crises of confidence” speech, which later morphed in the country’s “malaise”, I had enough of his weak – bordering on whiny – presidential leadership. There had been an intolerable lack of presidential leadership in this country, as was clearly the case with Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam), Richard Nixon (Watergate) and Gerald Ford (being Gerald Ford). Carter seemed like the latest in an undistinguished line of presidents.
Ronald Reagan was not what I was looking for in 1980. I can remember watching Reagan in a televised debate, and quickly turning it off because my impression of him was one of a guy clearly in over his head. I must have missed a helluva comeback performance, because Reagan went on to beat the stuffing out of Carter in November. I’ve always wondered what chances Reagan would have had if there had been a stronger incumbent than Carter in The Oval Office.
In the end, I think I actually sat out the 1980 presidential election.
But what I learned in those early Reagan years was that he was the consummate manager. He knew how to pull in the most qualified people to execute his strategies, then he got out-of-the-way and let them do their jobs. Mr. Reagan eventually proved to demonstrate values, policies and initiatives that I came to appreciate.
His administration’s efforts to build a 600 ship navy placed unmanageable pressure on the Soviet military and economy. It was just one more factor adding cracks to the facade of the soon-to-fail Soviet bloc. Reagan’s foreign policy initiatives included added emphasis on reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the USA and USSR in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty. In fact, Reagan became such a popular icon in the Soviet Union that Mikhail Gorbachev asked Reagan to give a speech on free-market philosophy at Moscow State University.
But what struck me most was the way Reagan restored a sense of strength and leadership in The Oval Office. Reagan’s performance, whether one agrees with his pragmatic approach to governance and belief in American exceptionalism (the shining city on the hill), turned the attitude of country around from the aimlessness of the Carter years.
By the end of Reagan’s first term I was a convert, not only to the Reagan philosophy but to more conservative views on social and economic matters. I voted for Reagan in his re-election campaign against Walter Mondale. And by the end of his presidency in 1988, I viewed Ronald Reagan as an American hero.
The above is one of my favorite pictures of Reagan. I had it taped on my desk at work for years; and on more than one occasion it was suggested that the picture was disrespectful. When confronted with this observation, I would explain that the picture was a favorite because it portrayed a side of Reagan no other President in recent memory would allow to peek through. (When asked why he allowed himself this lapse in presidential decorum, the President simply said he had always wanted to do that to the press.)
Ronald Reagan was unafraid to appear human, even self-deprecating. I loved the picture because it showed President Reagan as a human being who cared more for that “shining city on the hill” than he did for the pretense of invulnerability.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President!
We miss you!