I wrote this (as the unsigned editorialist) for the Mobile Register in 1999 about my experiences in 1983. No link is available, so my old editor said I could paste it onto a blog. After this, I’ll post my column from when Reagan died. But first, a look back at an event in the White House at which Reagan was supposed to stay for 15 minutes, but ignored his aides and stayed 45 or 50 minutes because he was having so much fun.
Saturday, February 6, 1999
Edition: 10, Section: A, Page 10
On this, Ronald Reagan’s birthday, a fond appraisal
SIXTEEN YEARS ago today, more than 400 college students crammed into the entrance hall of the White House to wish Ronald Reagan a happy 72nd birthday. The weather outside was bleak and cold, and so were the political prospects for the president – at least according to all the pundits.
Conventional wisdom still hadn’t processed the fact that the nation’s steep recession had bottomed out in November. Mr. Reagan’s economic program had thus already been dismissed as a failure even though the bulk of his tax cuts were just then going into effect. In the rest of Washington, the only question seemed to be whether Mr. Reagan could finish out his single term of office without bumbling into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet juggernaut.
Inside the White House, though, the atmosphere was very different that day. The president, freshly returned from Camp David, was in a jaunty mood. Ever the optimist, President Reagan was slinging jokes right and left and promising to easily dispose of all challengers in his upcoming re-election campaign.
One girl with a cast on her leg passed her crutch up to the president; he signed it. Somebody else passed up some cookies, and he said: “Shh! Don’t tell Nancy: She’s watching my diet.” Somebody else passed up a cowboy hat, which the president immediately donned. Despite his reputation, Mr. Reagan was completely unscripted. An aide kept tugging at his elbow, saying that the students’ allotted time was up – but the president wouldn’t leave. He was having too much fun with his wisecracks and with the utterly random give-and-take with a bunch of rambunctious collegians. So comfortable did the president make them feel that some completely forgot the dignity of their surroundings and began chanting “Ron-nie, Ron-nie!” — as if he were a high school gridiron star rather than the leader of the Free World.
Ronald Reagan, the optimist, was right that day, and the pundits were wrong. Despite their predictions of gloom and doom, America was on its way back to peace and prosperity. On Feb. 6, 1983, the United States was beginning just the fourth month of what would become 93 consecutive months of economic growth, fueled by Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts. And the supposedly unstoppable, expansionist Soviet Empire would soon be stopped, and then begin contracting — hemmed in on all sides by the “Reagan doctrine,” which held that freedom must be supported everywhere, against tyrants of both the left and the right.
Under Ronald Reagan, the Cold War wasn’t getting hot; it was merely being won. Thirteen years later, an immigrant from Eastern Europe happened upon ex-President Reagan in a park, and the immigrant thanked Mr. Reagan for saving his family from the communists. Mr. Reagan, addled by Alzheimer’s but as jaunty as ever, answered: “Yes, that is my job.”
He had always seen that as his job. In May 1981, he told students at Notre Dame that “the West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Then he set about to ensure that outcome. Former Soviet KGB General Oleg Kalugin said: “American policy in the 1980s was a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Former Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh agreed. And on the very day that Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as Soviet leader, he took time to write the retired Mr. Reagan to thank the Gipper for working with him to “make the first and perhaps the most difficult steps on this path to unity.”
And all because, as speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in reminiscence, Ronald Reagan “didn’t hold views to be popular, he held them because he thought they were right.” More than that, wrote Ms. Noonan, “He loved America. He really loved it. His eyes went misty when he spoke of her. It was personal, emotional, protective and trusting. He was an American exceptionalist — we weren’t like other countries. God put us in a special place with a special job, to lead the forces of good, to be the city on a hill John Winthrop saw and hoped for.”
Today, as Mr. Reagan turns 88, there’s still much that all of us can learn from his attitudes. And as we do, all of us should, like those college students in 1983, wish him a very happy birthday.
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