Over at The American Catholic, for Reagan's birthday, Donald McClarey has a nice piece reminding us about Ronald Reagan and what he brought to the American landscape in the 1980s. My parents were Reagan Democrats. That is, they were sick and tired of Jimmy Carter's lackluster leadership and felt that he, as well as the Democrats, had embraced values and ideas that were incompatible with America's ultimate well being. The rest of their families, as far as I know, remained Democrat in votes as well as name. Their families liked Reagan, don't get me wrong. There was no real animosity. They simply wouldn't vote for him, being staunch Democrats.
Among our younger generation, however, that sentiment was different. I began watching politics in 1980 when it came to my attention that we had just elected a war monger president who would be nuking the world any minute. Really. The message us youngsters heard, especially from Boomer aged pundits, was 'Go get laid now, because ol'Ronnie is going to nuke the world!' Recently, a special on the Cold War run by National Geographic actually postulated that the whole 'get it now' attitude of our generation came from this period in time; this idea that our end was now inevitable and there would be no retirement. The NatGeo special didn't directly link it to the Leftwing propaganda against Reagan. But at least it admitted the feeling of inevitable doom from that period of time.
The 1982 Recession didn't help, and soon we heard charges of senility and stupidity that was leading to poverty, racism, discrimination and Big Brother (that was big in 1984). Yet, by 1986 things were changing. The economy had rebounded. Yes, Reagan's almost naïve faith in the goodness of Americans paved the way for a godless market in a godless country to seize upon his policies and exploit them for the benefit of the wealthy and the exclusion of the middle class and American welfare in general. But at the time, things were leaps and bounds better than 1979.
Plus, we just came off of the Geneva Summit where Reagan and Gorbachev took the first fruitful steps that would not only diminish the fears of a nuclear holocaust, but made it clear we might just end this whole Cold War thing peacefully.
Naturally, not wanting to be burned by inconvenient progress, the Left attacked, and we had the Iran Contra scandal. Most people couldn't tell you want the legalities of that scandal were. The point wasn't to get Reagan legally. If they could, all the better. But it was to smear his reputation by forcing out the fact that he had broken his promise about negotiating with terrorists, or something similar. That was the hope. Despite the scandal, however, and despite the market downturn that happened in 1987, Reagan left office the most popular president since polls were started.
Why? First, because he appealed to the older generation that might not like the other party, but supported the well being of America more than partisanship. Second, he had a strong sense of who he was and what he believed and he governed accordingly. He wasn't a detail kind of guy and that was no problem. He handed the details to his workers and let them do the heavy lifting. But he knew what he believed and he set out a set of policy plans in 1980 based on his beliefs, and with the exception of lowering our debt, he accomplished those promises in his first term.
Finally, he was a good leader, and by most accounts, a good person. Even if at the time he towered above other figures, he was a down home sort of guy. He could lead. He could get America where he wanted it to go. But he did it by getting people to join him. Whether a Democratic congress, or a Soviet leader. So strong was his leadership abilities that Gorbachev was picked to lead the Soviet Union as a direct result of Reagan's unwavering style in the US.
But despite this, he was a good man. During the special about the Geneva Conference that I've referenced before, there was a charming little anecdote told by some of the staff workers who were with the Reagans. The Reagans were staying somewhere with a family in Geneva. One of the children asked Reagan to watch his pet goldfish. Unfortunately, the goldfish died the night before Reagan was to meet with Gorbachev. Reagan was crushed in the morning when he saw the fish was dead. He told one of his staffers to find another fish just like it! He then went onto the meeting, all the world watching, all the critics in knots worried that he would nuke the world, everyone holding their breath. When the historic meeting was over, Reagan returned to the residence and - this is told by those who were there - the first thing out of his mouth was, "Did you get the fish?"
It reminds me of the famous story of Joe Montana in his Super bowl XXIII victory. Pressed against the clock. Seconds ticking away. Touchdown needed to win. Starting at the other end of the field. As the team gathered in the huddle, nerves on edge, adrenalin pumping, it's said that Montana suddenly looked up and said, "Hey, is that John Candy?" Whether it happened that way or not, I don't know. But it illustrated the leadership Montana brought to the game. Perhaps the strongest leader pro football ever had. Joe Cool.
And that was Reagan. The fate of the world on the line, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the eyes of the world and history glaring down. And through it all, the first thing he had on his mind when he returned was concern for a child's pet fish. That's leadership. That's that It factor. And that's what made my generation a bit off kilter when it came to the media generated Reagan hate. Because the Boomer dominated pop culture we in which we grew up hated the man, we should have had no love for him ourselves. Many did hate him. Worse than anything I've heard said about Obama. And yet, on the street level, even if we didn't like him and were obliged by the media narrative to ridicule the man, many of us also knew, deep down, we were better off than we had been only a few years earlier. We didn't proclaim our admiration openly of course. But we knew. And what's more, we felt safe and believed there was light at the end of the Cold War tunnel because of Reagan, not despite Reagan. In the bigger scheme of things, in the fallen world we've always been forced to live in, that's not bad.