In 1984, I was a doctoral student in political science at Northern Illinois University, in the little town of DeKalb. On February 6, two buddies and I piled into an old VW Beetle and drove 40 miles due west to Dixon, Illinois, to see President Reagan, who would visit his old hometown that day for his 73rd birthday. The event was in the basketball gym of Dixon High School — not the same one Reagan had attended, but a newer one. Our trouble was, there were three of us, and only two tickets to the event.
How to get us all in? We nervously scanned the security procedures at the door to the gym. The Secret Service agents were gimlet-eyed fellows with the telltale earpieces, but they were more intent on scanning the crowd for threats than on monitoring the business of showing tickets, which seemed to be handled by locals. The tickets themselves were “keepers” — minor collector’s items for collectors of those sorts of things — so after checking them, the gatekeepers let you pocket them after you showed yours and passed through. One of my friends went first, I went second, and our third friend hung back a couple places in line behind me. My friend showed his ticket, I showed mine, then after putting a slight crease in it and praying it was aerodynamic, I deftly flipped it back behind me. No one noticed as it fluttered to the ground at the feet of the friend behind me, who casually picked it up as though he’d dropped it, showed it when his turn came, and sauntered in to join us. Then I let out my breath!
What fun to be with the president on his birthday, in his hometown, at the kickoff of his reelection year! Reagan was in fine, joyous form that cold February day in Dixon:
Birthdays are special moments, and you’ve given me one today. But I must tell you, even though this is the 34th anniversary of my 39th birthday — [laughter] — those numbers don’t faze me at all. I believe Moses was 80 when God first commissioned him for public service. [Laughter] And I also remember something that Thomas Jefferson once said. He said, “We should never judge a President by his age, only by his works.” And ever since he told me that — [laughter] — I’ve stopped worrying. There are those who say I’ve stopped working. [Laughter]
The transcripts always note the laughter, but never the tears. Reagan could make you laugh one moment, and move you to tears minutes later. And he could prompt reflection, with a message simple, direct, and profound. He said this that day as well:
Only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding their own destiny, in benefiting from their own risks, do societies prosper, grow, and remain free. To those who would stifle personal initiative through more and more government, I ask them to read the Constitution. As a matter of fact, just read the first three words. It says, “We the People.” It doesn’t say, “We the Government.”
That day in Dixon, sharing in Reagan’s infectious love of America with several hundred admirers of a great man back in his hometown, has always been a favorite memory of mine. Sitting in the front row of the basketball bleachers at Dixon High, I even had the opportunity to stick my foot out and trip Sam Donaldson as he went bustling by. But I decided I had already tempted fate enough for one day!
— Matthew J. Franck is director of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.