It was the summer of 1976, and as I ironed, I watched the Republican National Convention, anxious about my candidate, Ronald Reagan. I had been a Reagan fan since his days as California's governor. In 1967, he visited a college campus during that heyday of campus riots. Students lined the sidewalk Reagan would use and stood sullen and mute to protest the man who wanted their antics halted. Unfazed, Reagan walked the gauntlet of motionless, silent hippies. As he approached a door to the building of his meeting, he began to tiptoe. Before he went in, he turned to face them, and placing a finger to his mouth whispered, "Shhhh!" Ah, the savoir-faire of a true smart mouth. A kindred spirit.
Only self-confidence permits a man with power not to slip into lectures and melodrama when confronted by hordes of punks. He kept himself above the fray, and all with good humor. I knew between Niagara starch and the shirt collars that Mr. Reagan would not win the nomination that summer of 1976. Because he was 65, I feared that he would never be president because he was "too old." Chet Huntley and David Brinkley said so.
But, providence shined on America and forced us to endure four years of Jimmy Carter's sanctimonious sweaters and meandering foreign policy. During the Iranian Hostage Crisis I began screaming at appliances in my home, a habit that would re-emerge during all Democratic administrations and made-for-TV movies. "Do something, you wimp!" was my favorite phrase each time the feckless peanut farmer lectured us about diplomacy. During that awful four years, when America behaved as a timid handmaiden to the world, malaise overcame us. When Carter finally worked up enough nerve to send in troops, the hostage rescue mission was like a Keystone Kops short. America was not a shining city on a hill; she was an inept buffoon.
Still, I remain beholden to Mr. Carter because he was such an awful president. Home mortgage rates hovered at 17%, and those were the ARMs. We waited in lines at gas stations as the Middle East chortled over our cowardice. Mr. Reagan, complete with cheery optimism, swept the country, for two terms. In 1984, he would win 49 of the 50 states..
Mr. Reagan was charming, funny, and ever the smart-mouth. When confronted by the media during the 1984 presidential campaign about being "too old" to be president, Mr. Reagan responded, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
His humor reflected his fearlessness without the annoying bragging. When he was being wheeled into surgery after John Hinckley shot him, he hoped aloud to his doctors, "Please tell me you're Republicans." When he returned to public events following recovery, he was asked if he was afraid of being shot, "No, but I am wearing my oldest suit."
Dutch. The Gipper. Ronaldus Magnus. Just the number of nicknames tells you the level of endearment. But, there were the negative adjectives, "simple-minded ideologue," "dense," "hollow," and "controlled by Nancy." What made conservatives love him so and liberals detest and mock him with equal fervor?
There's that darn absolutism. He had unwavering views, a sense of right and wrong, accompanied by purpose in his leadership. It drove the left nuts. He knew tax cuts stimulate economies, and he used them as the weeping, wailing and gnashing of liberal teeth condemned him. He was right, and supply side Reaganomics got the sickly Carter economy rolling.
He understood that you don't have bombs, tanks, aircraft carriers, and soldiers so that you can storm other countries. You have them to stop other countries from storming. He ended the Cold War by building a strong military and using even stronger rhetoric. When he uttered his "evil empire" label for the USSR, the liberals wrung their hands, fearful that Gorbachev would bomb DuPont Circle. Perhaps that would not have been such a bad idea or loss.
My husband broke the news of the Gipper's passing to me just as I was finishing my regular column. That column is for another time. My college friend, my inspiration, my president is gone. Perhaps he was my role model because I found him and his views during my youthful college years. Perhaps it was because he was always an underdog, underestimated by everyone from the national media to the USSR. I learned from him that a great blessing in life is to underestimated. Or "misunderestimated," as Mr. Bush would say.
Sure he was a "B" movie actor, with embarrassments such as "Bedtime for Bonzo." He once signed a picture of himself and Bonzo for a fan. and wrote, "I'm the one with the watch." His family life was not ideal and included a divorce and a nutty daughter who put her parents through 20 years of adolescence. But, perhaps that was also a lesson. Life ain't perfect, and we make mistakes, but just because we don't always reach the ideals doesn't mean we don't believe in them or keep trying for them.
He was an intellectual anti-intellectual. He stared down the Cold War powers even as he smiled for us. The Alzheimer's at the end of his life brought us the depth of his love story with one Nancy Davis. Nancy, the shallow shrew by all media accounts, stayed by his side, cared for him, and loved him. What a story. A national moment of "Shhhhhh!" for the Gipper is in order.
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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State
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