June 09, 2004
Ronald Reagan
Posted by Gordon Smith

reagan.jpgI am watching on CNN as the caisson carrying Ronald Reagan's casket moves toward the United States Capitol. I cannot match Steve Bainbridge for Reagan adulation, but I will add my two bits.

I am just old enough to remember Reagan's flirtation with presidential politics in 1976, when incumbent President Gerald Ford retained the Republican Party's endorsement. Reagan seemed like an odd interloper to me then. Ford seemed like the obvious choice, despite his notorious (and exaggerated) clumsiness, his silly WIN buttons (for "Whip Inflation Now"), and the baggage that accompanied being the hand-picked successor of disgraced President Richard Nixon.

Four years later, beaten down by Jimmy Carter's ineptitude, many of us embraced Reagan more for his attitude than his policies. (Just a side note: I missed the opportunity to vote for Reagan by a matter of days, as my 18th birthday on November 16 was just after the election.) It is easy to forget how bleak the world looked in the United States in 1980. Nixon had made us very cynical about the Presidency -- an attitude that has persisted to the present, not without assistance from Presidents Clinton and Bush. Moreover, President Carter was simply depressing, and his handling of the Iranian hostage situation was deplorable. He seems like an immensely good person, and he has been a wonderful ex-President, perhaps the best ever, but he was a terrible disappointment while in office. Ronald Reagan was the anti-Carter, a man who would not succumb to the malaise.

I am still moved by the memory of Reagan proclaiming, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Having come of age in the Cold War and having lived in Austria -- a country then surrounded on three sides by the Iron Curtain -- during the early 1980s, I had become accustomed to the idea of Soviet Communism as a permanent fixture on the world stage.

I am still horrified by the memory of watching Reagan being gunned down in front of the Washington Hilton. For some reason, I was watching television at the exact moment of the shooting, and I remember the newscasters breaking in with the reports. I cried that day, but I laughed when I heard about Reagan's comment to the operating team: "Please tell me you're all Republicans."

Ronald Reagan was not perfect, and I am more than willing to concede his shortcomings. But he changed my life for the better. He helped me to believe something that I have always wanted to believe: that one person could change the world. For that I am forever indebted.

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