Remembering Ronald Reagan / James T. O'Hora
Remembering Ronald Reagan
At 46, and a follower of current events since I was a young paper boy in the mid-1970s in northern Bergen County, N.J., I remember about eight U.S. presidents. From Richard Nixon to our current occupant of the oval office -- the one I revere the most is the one I cast my first vote for in 1984, for the reelection of Ronald Reagan.
With his centennial birth being celebrated this month, I wanted to share some thoughts on our 40th president; for those too young to remember him and to remind those who overlook his importance.
Before paying tribute to the man and the remarkable heights of prosperity and confidence that the Reagan presidency gave us, it's fair to quickly revisit his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who, thankfully was denied a second term in 1980.
I recall the pessimism of the Carter years, the "malaise" and "the crisis of confidence" that had settled over our nation at that time. Our 39th president's response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s was to don a cardigan sweater and ask us to lower our thermostats! And I certainly remember how humiliating it was in November 1979, to watch our 53 hostages paraded blind-folded around our embassy courtyard in Tehran, by militant Iranian "students" loyal to the revolutionary Islamic leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Being a decent high school track athlete at the time, I also got a good chuckle with one of my final images of President Carter -- his near collapse and subsequent dropping out of a 10-kilometer race on a warm day in September of 1979, while running in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. What a lasting metaphor that was for America's foreign foes at the time.
Fast forward to a few minutes after noon on Jan. 20, 1981, when Gov. Reagan became President Reagan; after reciting the 35-word oath of office with his right hand on his late mother Nelle's bible. It literally took only minutes for President Reagan to have an impact on our nation; as it was reported that finally, our now 52 hostages were released and were leaving Iranian air space and headed home after a 444 day nightmare. I strongly believe the hostages were released immediately after President Reagan took office because those cowards knew there was a new sheriff in town who would be coming to get 'em. I know others believe the timing of the release was meant to be a final insult to President Carter.
Ronald Reagan emerged when our nation was at a real crossroads, we were drifting domestically and had some self-doubt on the heels of two failed presidencies and one lost war. Our defense capability had deteriorated and we were becoming vulnerable against Soviet expansion worldwide; we were disrespected abroad and America had almost lost sight of who we were and some believed that the presidency itself was too consuming for one person and no longer manageable. Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism never doubted America and he quickly restored our standing on the world stage as freedom loving people who always strived for peace and prosperity through free market societies and that human fulfillment is created from the bottom up, not the government down.
Ronald Reagan was often underestimated by his political opponents, as Governor Jerry Brown's father, Pat Brown, learned as Reagan upset him in the 1966 California Governor's race -- and go ask the hippies and rioters at Berkley, who he also confronted and quelled in the late 1960s.
President Reagan began what many called our "national renewal" with the boldest economic program since the New Deal. His plan called for slashing tax rates, taming inflation and shrinking the size of government and balancing the budget while re-arming and regaining respect for the military after our post-Vietnam doldrums.
On foreign policy, Reagan went on a moral and ideological offensive, through his CIA Director William Casey they encouraged active U.S. support for anti-Communist movements around the world; in places like Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and the many satellite countries behind the Iron Curtin. This later became known as the Reagan Doctrine which also supported pro-democracy efforts and offered hope to captive nations and oppressed people in places like Grenada, the Philippines, South Korea, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.
Instead of rehashing his policies and arguing over the success or credit he deserves, I like to focus more on Ronald Reagan the man; and the firm unwavering principles that he articulated from a few small 3-by-5 index cards he utilized when he delivered a speech. Ronald Reagan was self confident and secure in who he was and also showed a lot of humility. He was modest and did not have a mean or vindictive bone in his body and did not hold grudges; he was not one to go out to "get even" and "settle scores" with adversaries.
Ronald Reagan's American journey began on Feb. 6, 1911, he derived from very modest Midwestern roots that took him from a rented, cold-water, second-story apartment above a bakery in Tampico, Ill., and soon after to Dixon, Ill., to Hollywood, the U.S. Army, president of the Screen Actors Guild, to two terms in Sacramento as governor and finally to the presidency. His father John Edward (Jack) was an Irish-Catholic and a shoe salesman who was always chasing a rainbow and uprooted the family at every turn. Young Ronald Reagan lived in four different towns and 12 rented apartments before his teen years. Many biographers believe this nomadic youth led to a certain perceived aloofness and lack of real close friends as an adult.
Reagan's mother, Nelle Clyde Wilson was also from Irish-English-Scottish stock and very religious; she was an active member of the Disciples of Christ Church and had a huge impact on the president's faith that he often spoke about. Nelle Reagan imbued in him and his older brother, Neil, the view of "godless" Soviet Communism.
Had his father, who had a drinking problem, not been so apathetic towards his faith, Ronald Reagan could have been our second Catholic president, however his mother Nelle, who was more earnest in her faith, raise her two boys with her Protestant religion.
In his book, "A Different Drummer," Michael K. Deaver, a Reagan aide for nearly three decades had this to say about his boss: "The Reagan I have known is a man who was shy and deplored talking about himself, who would rather spend a party talking to a laborer than policy wonks; a man whose convictions remained unchanged over the course of his life, who never used pollsters to decide his positions on issues; a man whose idea of relaxation was riding a horse, fixing fence posts and chopping wood until his muscles ached and his hands blistered. He was disciplined, tough, charismatic and unshakably optimistic."
He was avuncular and of course quick witted, which got him through many difficult spots. From asking his surgeons if they "were all Republicans" before they removed a would be assassin's bullet from his chest; to his response in a presidential debate when he was criticized in his first term for not meeting with his Soviet counterparts, "I tried to, but they all kept dying on me." My personal favorite was when he returned to the White House after a meeting with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Vice President Bush asked him, "How the meeting go with Tutu?" and Reagan quipped "So-So."
I have consistently read about the personal decency that was attributed to President Reagan that I still admire. He often read letters that were sent to him by ordinary Americans, many who had fallen on hard times during the 1982 recession. Once he responded to a request for some financial assistance from a single mom and sent her a personal check for $100. Later, he learned that she did not cash the check, because it was signed by the President of the United States. Reagan sent her a second check and implored her to cash one, and keep the second one.
One of the first guests he and Nancy dined with in the private second-floor residence of the White House, was his political foe, Democrat House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and his wife, Millie. These two self-made, Irish-American giants circled each other that evening like two sumo wrestlers and went on to battle each other many times; but somehow maintained a friendship "after 6 p.m." and often headed to The Dubliner Pub in Washington to celebrate St. Patrick's Day together.
President Reagan is revered in so many places for champion freedom and nurturing the flicker and flame of freedom in places like the Gdansk shipyards in Poland, here he supported a short, paunchy, electrician named Lech Walesa and his labor movement called Solidarity. Reagan endeared himself to our new Polish pope and the Polish people for encouraging them and backing their struggle for freedom and for imposing trade sanctions against Poland in retaliation for outlawing the Solidarity organization.
Finally it was Reagan's flexibility and instincts that enabled him to build a personal rapport in his second term with the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan knew "Gorby" was a "different kind of leader" and could do business with him. Together, through multiple summits and mutual respect they agreed to reduce the number of long-range missiles that we had pointed at us. It was again Reagan's core beliefs of "peace through strength" and "trust but verify" that finally thawed the 40-plus-year Cold War.
As he reminded us in his final address to a Republican Convention in 1992, "the Berlin Wall did not fall, it was pushed!" And communism did end up "on the ash heap of history." And our rendezvous with destiny was complete after his two terms.
I never met President Reagan, but in my early 20s I did attend a few of his rallies when he campaigned in Hackensack and Oradell, N.J. I did get close once, though, when I attended a Columbus Day Dinner event in October 1988. It was at the South Mountain Ice Arena in South Orange, N.J., a visit Reagan made to New Jersey to campaign for his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in the closing weeks of the '88 campaign. The ticket price was very reasonable and tables for the spaghetti dinner were placed over the ice rink. President Reagan true to form eschewed the large dais and sat with the guests at a plain table with the Archbishop of Newark, Theodore McCarrick. I could not resist as I knew it may be the last chance to meet him, so I wandered over as close as I could get to him without the Secret Service wrestling my 6-foot 4-inch frame down. I have a picture of him sitting at that table and, being tall, we certainly locked eyes, but unfortunately I never was able to tell him what a great president I thought he was.
Today, too many politicians try and grab the Reagan mantle; it never seems to ring true as he was one-of-a-kind and I believe we will never see the likes of a man like that again.
James T. O'Hora is the chairman of the New Canaan Republican Town Committee.