On Sunday, many Americans paused to remember the man who restored their faith in what he called "a shinning city on a hill." The man was Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States. His legacy is one of optimism, hope, faith, and belief in the ideals that made America that shining city. He came to occupy the highest office in the land at a time of national malaise and uncertainly. Americans had stopped believing in themselves and their country. Many Americans were convinced our best days were behind us…. far behind us. The Soviet Union appeared to be the world's true superpower while America's place in the world was in doubt.
Eight short years later America was back. Brought back from the brink by a decisive, optimistic leader with a twinkle in his eye and steel in his spine. He stood up to the Soviet Union accurately labeling them the "evil empire." He refused to accept the idea that American exceptionalism was a concept best relegated to the dustbin of history. He believed so strongly in America that he made us believe with him. He touched something in the heart of a majority of Americans that caused us to remember who we are and where we came from. That is why when he died in 2004; there was a spontaneous outpouring of emotion as an entire nation mourned the loss of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. It was as if we realized in the moment of his passing it would be a long time before another like him would pass our way again.
I remember the first time I heard Ronald Reagan speak. My dad was a paint contractor. He was up every morning by 5:00am and by 5:30 the house would be filled with the smell of fresh cooked bacon and eggs over easy. Dad would always take me to school before he headed off to cover some weather worn house with color and style. I would stumble into the kitchen, still wiping the sleep from my eyes and my dad would set before me a breakfast fit for a king. "Always eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper," he would say.
The radio was always on at breakfast and it was always tuned to a local station that prided itself on calling around to all the small towns to find out what had happened over night. The good news was the most exciting thing that usually happened in our small town was the occasional wandering cow that would make it out to the main highway. In between the riveting reports of wayward livestock the station would play one of Ronald Reagan's radio addresses. Between 1975 and 1979, Reagan recorded over 1000 addresses for radio that ultimately were carried by hundreds of radio stations across America. He wrote most of the addresses himself in his own hand on a yellow legal pad.
My dad was a marginal blue dog democrat. But much to the chagrin of my staunchly yellow dog democrat mom my dad had come to love those Reagan radio messages. His admiration must have been contagious because even as a young man (I was a high school junior) I listened and I became a fan. When I graduated from high school in 1976, Ronald Reagan was making waves as the original "tea party" alternative to the status quo Republican leadership of Gerald Ford. I was too busy working for my sister at Jones and Presnell Studios in Charlotte, NC and getting ready for my freshman year in college to pay close attention to the primary, but I remember watching the Republican Convention and hearing an incredible speech from a man who almost unseated a sitting president.
I was hooked. In 1980, I volunteered for the Reagan campaign in South Carolina. I thought I was major player as I proudly distributed yard signs and licked envelopes. I graduated in May and Reagan was elected President in a landslide in November. The rest, as they say, is history. My love and respect for Reagan grew along with my renewed faith in the country he loved.
Reagan literally dodged the bullet that would have taken his life while surviving the one that found its mark. He stood up to the Soviets demanding that Mr. Gorbachev "tear down this wall" that separated freedom from tyranny. He comforted us when the crew of the Challenger "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." He inspired us when Muammar Gaddafi thought he could get away with murder. He made us cheer when he dispatched 5000 marines to rescue U.S. medical students on the island of Grenada.
The press of his day tried to brand Reagan as a simpleton puppet at the mercy of a host of masters. But Reagan author Craig Shirley said it best when he wrote, "This was an extremely complex man, who thought about things very deeply, who wrote extensively, had a very refined political philosophy, and literally changed America, changed the Republican Party and in doing so, changed the world."
You can count me among the lives changed by the man and the message that was Ronald Reagan.