Ronald Reagan is dead at 93. It is not a surprise, and yet—to many like me—it is a shock. You see, I grew up with Reagan. He was as much a part of my formative years as were my parents and teachers. In Southern California, where I now reside, people are waiting for up to 10 hours, just to view his closed casket. An amazing amount of commitment to be sure, but there are other ways to honor his memory. With Reagan really gone, it is time for those of us who have been shaped by his example to step up to the plate, and that is a jarring reality. Yet the nature of Reagan’s long illness was such that we have already had some practice at it—admittedly with mixed results. Let us take the occasion of his death as an opportunity to remember, again, why we loved the man. Let us remember, again, what it was that he loved about America and Americans.
My early, and perhaps unhealthy, fascination with American politics began when I was four. I watched as Nixon resigned and, according to my mother, I cried. I don’t remember much about Ford, but I remember my father’s deep regret at having voted for Jimmy Carter and my equally deep jealousy of Amy Carter when she was featured in Scholastic’s Weekly Reader when I was in the first grade. Soon, I began to beg my parents to take our family vacation in Washington, D.C.—as much to see the White House as to see the dinosaur collection at the Smithsonian. When we finally made the trip in the summer of 1978, I was impressed with the dinosaurs but disappointed in the city. As we toured the White House and other government buildings, I did not see what I thought ought to be the proper attitude in the place. That is not to say that it was not somber or serious—if anything it was too much of that. Granted, I had just turned eight, but I sensed a kind of defeat in the air. There was no vigor; no sense that the people there loved their work, had respect for their boss, or awe at their amazing fortune in the privilege of being there. Above all, there was no laughter. I am sure that I did not know at eight years old that there were such things as Republicans or Democrats, let alone the differences between them. But on the long drive home to Ohio from Washington, I determined that whatever those Carter folks were, I was not.
As I passed through parochial elementary school, the sense of things gone awry continued. I remember being so frightened at the prospect of war with the Soviet Union that I hid my crucifix and scapular under my bed in a shoebox, just in case the Soviets came and searched our house. Granted, my fears were more than a bit over the top—unfounded in reality—but that was the sense of things I got as a child. I remember waiting in the gas lines with my parents. Inflation and taxes were common topics of conversation among the adults in my life. I remember my father struggling to make a go of it in his fledgling business and working ridiculously long hours to make ends meet. And then came the hostage crisis in Iran, the yellow ribbons and the ceaseless references to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Something had to give. I could sense that the deflation of ego stopped there. Finally, I could see that our indignation was stirred. When the attempt to rescue the hostages failed, there was a change in the people I knew. We were Americans, after all. We would kick Russian butt in hockey and we would not suffer this fool, Carter, much longer.
And then along came Ronald Reagan. I first became aware of him, oddly, because some friends of my parents had a daughter named Reagan. When I saw the signs in their yard that said “Reagan for President” I commented to my mother that they were a bit strange. She patiently explained that it was a coincidence and that Reagan was the Republican candidate for president. This was, coincidentally, the first time I came to understand that there were Republicans and Democrats. I wanted to know what we were. My mom told me that she and my father were probably going to be Republicans but that there were also Democrats in our family. “What is Carter?” I asked. When she told me he was a Democrat I decided that I must be a Republican too. By the time the election came around, I was in heated debates with my peers on the playground. I could do a great satirical imitation of Carter, which made me pretty popular because so few students supported him. My opponents were mainly Anderson supporters who just said Reagan was too old to be president and that he would probably die in office (HA!). I watched the election returns at the home of my great-grandparents who had always been committed Democrats. They were happy to see Carter go. He deserved it, they said, and they chastised my mother for voicing her compassion at seeing Carter’s reaction to the news.
I slept very well that night and I no longer kept my religious articles under my bed. Reagan made me feel secure and hopeful. He was so comfortable in his own skin that it was impossible not to trust him. He was the kind of president who, it seemed to me at that young age, we ought to have. He was strong, he was sure of himself, and he laughed—a lot. For a child, especially, this laughter was very reassuring. For his laughter was a laughter of confidence. Carter had said that the American people had a “crisis of confidence” and he was right. We had lost confidence in him. He could not laugh and we could not laugh when we saw that.
Critics called Reagan a cowboy and insinuated that he was not in possession of all of his mental faculties. He did not try to respond to that criticism—he did not have to. His speeches and his actions did that for him. Even his opponents knew that there was nothing affected about him. He may have been an actor, but he was a grossly underestimated actor if there was anything other than genuine in his performance as president.
Perhaps it was because I was so confident in Reagan’s abilities or perhaps it was just because I was a normal teenager, but my attention to politics waned a bit during his second term. I remember being especially touched by his speech about the Challenger disaster—having watched it explode in the halls at school that day. And I remember thinking that I should have more interest in what was going on during the Iran-Contra hearings while watching parts of them at a friend’s house with her mother. But my friends wanted to go out for pizza and it didn’t take much to convince me to come with them. Years later, when I finally did learn more about Iran-Contra for a college term paper, I felt vindicated in my choice of pizza.
I returned to Washington, D.C. during my senior year of high school to attend something called Presidential Classroom. As part of the program, we met with our Congressmen and Senators (or their surrogates) and had several speakers from the Reagan administration. My sense this time about the city was quite different. It seemed to me that the men and women we met with had some sense of purpose. Whether they stood with Reagan or against him, they had a sense that the fight mattered. They were animated, active, and alive. They had a sense that they could accomplish something. Politics was sexy again and I was hooked.
Reagan’s second term ended as I began my second semester of my freshman year in college. Of course, I campaigned for Bush, but I was disappointed in the already deflating interest of my elder College Republicans who talked of little else but the good old days under Reagan. I couldn’t blame them for their nostalgia. But I thought that in some real way, they had missed the point. Reagan’s gift to us was not that he made us have faith in him. It was that he made us have faith in ourselves. That summer I had an internship in Washington for the Bush Administration. I learned a lot from my work, but I learned more from the softball league and watching the old Reagan hands confront the new Bush hands. I could see that it would take a while to separate the message from the man.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that Reagan’s death—which, of course, has been a long time coming—comes now. But American history is full of serendipitous and unexplainable circumstances. Some have argued that these instances are evidence of the hand of God in our history. Whether because of accident or because of God’s intention, they do give us pause. Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Undoubtedly, their deaths gave our nation reason to contemplate anew the principles embodied in that Declaration apart from their embodiment in the men who drafted it.
Reagan passed one day before the 60th anniversary of D-Day and twenty years following one of his most powerful speeches on the principles of our nation. His passing also comes on the cusp of an election between another “cowboy” and an opponent whose lack of humor is at least as famous as Jimmy Carter’s. These similarities cannot pass unnoticed—no matter how much the media attempts to bask in the glow of Reagan’s eulogies. Reagan always understood that his strength came not just from within himself or because of some amorphous “optimism.” His so called “optimism” was rooted in his faith; his faith in God and in the American people and the principles they embody. He was great because he was an excellent example of an American. But it cannot be that he is unique in this. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” was not—at least in Reagan’s mind—so much about Reagan. It was about us.
In his passing we should remember, as he did, the principles for which those men died on the beaches of Normandy; the principles for which men are still willing to die today. Of course we should remember him fondly and, in so doing, realize that, in one sense, there can never be another Reagan. We cannot fall into the nostalgia trap of those College Republicans in 1988. Like Reagan and like our current president, we can all be cowboys. We can all stand tall and walk with pride. We can strive to be that shining city on a hill. It is morning again in America. And now we have occasion to commit ourselves to it anew. We may never do it with as much eloquence or grace as Reagan was able to do. But that is not really what matters. When qualities like these appear in our statesmen, they are the crowns of their virtues and the ornaments of their principles. But to honor this man and the things to which he devoted his life, sentimental fondness will not suffice. We must do what he asked of us. We must become the self-reliant, virtuous and principled Americans we were meant to be. We too, must be cowboys.
Julie Ann Ponzi is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.