The grand unveiling of the Ronald Reagan statue in the “lower rotunda” of the Capitol prompted me to consider again the meaning of his life and career.
I was too young and lived too far away to have memories of Gov. Reagan. But I do remember President Reagan.
I cast my first presidential vote in 1980, the year he was elected. I didn’t vote for him and was in shock when he was elected, as were almost all of my friends at the University of Minnesota, alma mater of Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Fritz Mondale.
The majority of them voted for Republican-turned-independent Rep. John Anderson, and Libertarian Ed Clark, whose running mate was the young David Koch. A smattering voted for Jimmy Carter.
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I thought Reagan was an attractive cue-card reader and was too old for the job. With his Old Hollywood pompadour, his brown plaid suits, malaprops such as saying trees pollute, it seemed incredible that he would now be playing the role of president.
I was, however, heartened by the new vice president, George H.W. Bush, who seemed to be more the type of Republican I was used to: a Yalie; Skull and Bones club; Eastern Establishment; blue-suit-striped-tie-black-shoes; and a sunny-preppy quality.
Reagan was barely in office on the morning of March 30, 1981, when I was on a business trip to New York. I was standing in our syndicate offices in the New York Daily News building when I heard he had been shot.
I flew back down to Washington, D.C., that evening and went to the site of the shooting outside the Washington Hilton. It was moist, dark, and forbidding. I don’t recall the scene being taped off.
The door he exited from was there in the shadows, and the wounded president was said to have been quipping away in the E.R., saying to the doctors, “I hope you’re all Republicans.”
I had to laugh at that one, and I was equally impressed with his seemingly miraculous survival and recovery. I saw him a few times later. He was shockingly handsome in person.
As a nationally syndicated cartoonist, I reveled in drawing his administration. In a few instances, I agreed with what he did.
His interior secretary spoke in tongues and seemed enamored with chain saws and oil rigs. His foreign policy seemed like more Vietnam-era adventurism. Many of his appointees got into legal trouble. The Oliver North-Iran-Contra affair was a national embarrassment, if not an impeachable offense.
Still, Reagan had his moments.
I recall watching his Normandy speech, in which he evoked the “boys of Pointe du Hoc.” I was impressed with his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in which he declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Gorbachev worked to manage the changes that swept Eastern Europe. I suspect the people of the Soviet Union were tired of waiting in bread lines and spending astronomical amounts of money on a war nobody really thought would occur. Reagan did confront the Soviets, and they folded.
When Gov. Reagan’s statue was unveiled on Monday, I recalled my sadness when he died. I had come to like him, and admired his willingness to engage with House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, who genuinely seemed to like him.
As I was watched the funeral on television in 2004, I was more impressed by past clips than I thought possible. Reagan seemed more in command at news conferences. His speeches seemed stronger and more eloquent, certainly far more so than those of George H.W. Bush, and Bush’s son.
One of the speakers at the statue event hyperbolically asserted that Reagan was the greatest president of the 20th century. Not by a long shot, but he was a consequential and at times imposing leader
Welcome back to Sacramento, Mr. Governor. It’s good to see you. It seems the son of the man you defeated for governor in 1966 took some lessons from you, too. Frugal ain’t all bad, and it seems to be working for him. Try not to take it personally that they put you in the basement.
I mean, “lower rotunda.”