Reagan, Then and Now
Commentators and politicians are underestimating him — again.


This is a year of important anniversaries for Ronald Reagan and his legacy. It is the tenth anniversary of his passing; it has been 25 years since he left the White House and 50 years since his groundbreaking speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. It is also 30 years since his monumental reelection of 1984, ratifying the Reagan Revolution.

The election of 1980 would have been meaningless, a detour in history, without 1984 legitimizing it. The Reagan Library, Eureka College, and the Reagan Ranch have taken various steps to commemorate these important anniversaries. And the effort to name a mountain in Nevada after Reagan is moving ahead, despite some Democrats’ attempts to derail it.

For those who say Reagan was divisive, consider that in 1980 and 1984, he received a total of 1,014 electoral votes while Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale received a grand total of 62. Actually, Reagan in his political career received 1,015 electoral votes, because in 1976, Mike Padden, a pro-life activist in Washington State, was an elector, and though Gerald Ford carried the Evergreen State that year, Padden could not bring himself to vote for Ford. Instead he cast his Electoral College ballot for Reagan, thus becoming what history calls a “faithless elector.” Of the tens of thousands of electoral votes cast for presidential candidates, there have been just a handful of faithless electors, and Padden, in joining their ranks, became a small footnote in American presidential lore.

The Gipper is known for many accomplishments and for his Renaissance Man life. He learned from an early age — starting when he led a student revolt at Eureka College and gave his first public speech, which he later described as a “heady” experience — that words and how they were delivered made all the difference in the world.

Fifty years ago this October, Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political stage with his monumental speech lauding the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Many now know the significance of “The Speech,” but what few think about is how political leaders are often defined by their speeches, for good or ill. Richard Nixon, to his great misfortune, is defined by his Checkers speech and “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” a.k.a. the “last press conference” tirade. Obviously, also his speech announcing his resignation. Jimmy Carter will be forever defined by the “malaise” speech in the summer of 1979, even though, ironically, he never actually used that word.

President Obama? His best speech was in the distant past, when he was a lowly state senator from Illinois and he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention, appearing to be a thoughtful up-and-comer. He hasn’t given a good speech since; most of them are insipid, thick with straw men, and leaving the listener with a feeling of being hungry and at the same time insulted.

Bill Clinton would like to remember a few and forget many of his speeches, such as the one at the Atlanta Democratic convention in 1988, when the verbose young man was booed by his own party for bloviating so long. His listeners actually cheered when they heard him say, “and in conclusion . . .” His best speeches may have been in 1992 in accepting his party’s nomination, and only a few years later when he proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.” But Clinton will be most remembered in history for statements such as “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and “I did not have sexual relations with that young woman.” Clinton, who is obsessed about his place in history, will, in all likelihood, have obituaries that lead by noting he is only the second president in history to be impeached.

More brightly, Lincoln will forever be known for his “house divided” stemwinder, the Cooper Union speech, his second inaugural address, and of course the Gettysburg Address. Many find it more than ironic that in his life, he was derided for being an intellectual lightweight, for not having attended the right schools, for supposedly governing by anecdote, and for not understanding the ways of Washington. Sound familiar?

FDR is best known for his (often misquoted) “. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural remarks of 1933, his 1936 acceptance speech (“This generation . . . has a rendezvous with destiny”), and his 1941 “day of infamy” speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan. JFK was a marvelous public speaker and was best known for his 1961 inaugural “ask not” speech. His televised addresses on civil rights and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his speech at Rice University, rallying the nation to support landing a man on the moon, were also important and memorable.

Reagan had many good speeches. So much so that he devoted a book, Speaking My Mind, to his favorite commentaries and discourses, edited by one of his speechwriters, Landon Parvin, whom Reagan acknowledged in his introduction to the book. Reagan also came up with many good lines, including the now familiar “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream . . .” And, “The trouble with our liberal friends isn’t that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” He could fire up a crowd as well as any tub-thumper in politics, as he did in speaking of the Panama Canal during the 1976 campaign. “We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we are going to keep it!”


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