By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on the birthday of Ronald Reagan
Illinois calls itself the Land of Lincoln, proud of the self-educated man who made a national name for himself in Springfield, and rose from country lawyer to president when Illinois was still young. But Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana; he only moved to Illinois when he came of age at 21.
The great Union General Ulysses S. Grant too is credited as an Illinois president, having lived in Galena when the Civil War broke out and through his candidacy for the presidency. But Grant had lived all over the country, and only moved to Illinois at the age of 38.
So too, Barack Hussein Obama is thought of as an Illinois president, but again the claim is tenuous; Obama was probably born in Hawaii, and was raised there and in Indonesia before attending college in California and the East Coast. The man known as “The Child of the Chicago Machine” didn’t actually move to Illinois until he was 24.
Only one President of the United States can truly be said to be a product of Illinois. Ronald W. Reagan was born in tiny Tampico, Illinois, and grew up all over northwest Illinois, in Monmouth and Galesburg, and briefly in Chicago, but chiefly in Dixon, where his childhood home and the nearby county museum still proclaim their pride in being the town where the greatest President of the 20th Century grew up.
Ronald Reagan attended his mother’s “Disciples of Christ” church, Dixon High School, and then Eureka College. He starred in the schools’ football and swim teams, acted in their plays, and served as a lifeguard along the Rock River, at an often dangerous stretch where he was credited with 77 saves on duty.
Unlike those other “Illinois presidents,” only after spending his first 21 years in Illinois did he leave the heartland to heed the call of the west. His first real adult job after college was in Iowa, calling baseball games on the radio. And then came Hollywood, and the rest is history.
Ronald Reagan was the true Illinoisan; even after years of stardom in Hollywood, this product of the Midwest never lost the faith he learned in his Dixon church, the economics he learned far from the Keynesian ivy league, or the abiding love of the country that gave him so many wonderful opportunities in life.
A City upon a Hill
President Reagan’s immediate predecessor was Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a failed Democrat president whose collapse in four short years is legendary. Carter tried to tackle every problem by throwing more government at it: a Department of Energy as a foolhardy response to OPEC, a Department of Education to make it look like the government can improve schools by wasting money in their name, unconstitutional price controls on oil and gas to try to reduce the nation’s use of energy. Nothing he did worked, and the country just got weaker.
So too did another recent president, Richard Nixon, Republican of California, fail in the office, so severely in fact that he had to be talked into resigning the office rather than be impeached. Very early on, according to his closest aides, Nixon decided to disregard economic policy, and to instead focus all his efforts on foreign policy throughout his presidency. Rather than calling for a rollback of the unconstitutional government expansions of the LBJ and FDR administrations, Nixon built on them, with wage and price controls, the final decoupling of the dollar from gold prices, disregard of the growing welfare state, all so he could focus on such alleged successes as the signing of an Anti-Ballistic Treaty with Public Enemy Number One, the “soviet socialists” of Communist Russia.
These presidents were failures not because they were bad people or fools; like most presidents, they were highly accomplished and intelligent men, or they wouldn’t have gotten so far. But they failed for a reason; they failed because they lacked a true understanding of America, of the vision and intent of our Founding Fathers.
This is where Ronald Reagan shined. He had long subscribed to the view of Governor Winthrop so long ago, that this land was intended by Divine Providence to be “as a shining city upon a hill,” that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” so we must fulfill the promise of this land or let down God Himself and the entirety of humanity.
Ronald Reagan didn’t look at the presidency as the culmination of a lifetime in politics; he hadn’t even really ventured into politics until he was 52. And had only held one public office – the governorship of California – for eight years before being elected president in 1980.
But Ronald Reagan had a vision; he shared the vision of our Founders, and the colonists who preceded them. He knew what America stood for, and he knew that, on the scene at that moment in time, he was the one man who could bring back that vision, and make America again the patriotic, prosperous, God-fearing role model for humanity that our nation and its people were intended to be.
A Comprehensive Vision for America
Ronald Reagan didn’t need to pick and choose between visions, as Nixon thought an overworked president with limited political capital had to do. Reagan didn’t need to micromanage everything he touched, as Carter thought a modern president should.
Reagan had one overarching philosophy that guided his entire presidency: that the form of government envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution was and is the best form of government on earth, God-given and God-blessed; that form of government, simply stated, was Constitutionally-limited – a recognition that prosperity would follow if government would just stay out of the way of the American people. There was a corollary too: anything that attacks this form of government – both from within and from without – must be viewed as hostile, to be utterly defeated as quickly as possible.
So, for Reagan, there was no need for a choice between foreign and domestic policy, a choice between different ways to spend political capital. Reagan spent his career – from 1954 when he went on the road as a public spokesman for General Electric, all through his presidency – eloquently presenting the case for limited government in the style of our Founding Fathers, both at home and abroad.
He opposed Communism because it was immoral; it killed millions when in power, in Russia, China, Cambodia… and it was violent even when not in power, as when he battled the California communists for domination of the Screen Actors Guild back in Hollywood (no exaggeration; Herb Sorrell was a card carrying CPUSA member, and his bare-knuckle labor actions were later proven to have been funded by the Soviets). Reagan rightly saw, early on in his career, that there’s no justifying communism by its stated goals and pretenses; as evil as its methods were, its hoped-for result was even worse.
So many Americans today forget that communists use violence to win the ability to commit more violence, that they kill in one country in order to win the ability to kill in more countries. The record is clear; the history books of the 20th century shout out the verdict with millions of cries from bloodstained pages. But people forget, because they no longer have a president utilizing his bully pulpit to remind them of this truth.
Reagan opposed big government, too, because it was immoral. He saw FDR lock innocent Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II… he saw the powerhouse of American manufacturing whittled away over his lifetime, as taxes and regulations gradually drove whole industries to pack up and move overseas in the 1960s and 1970s. When he was a star in Hollywood, he saw his own sizable paychecks shrink as up to 91% was grabbed by government at its worst, before Jack Kennedy’s short presidency succeeded in at least one effort, the tax reforms of 1963 that cut the top rate from 91% to 70%, among other marginal reforms.
Reagan spent a decade as an internal goodwill ambassador of sorts from GE, and, unlike most speakers who show up, earn their paycheck, and leave, Reagan bookended his visits to GE plants with plant tours and conversations with the employees. Today, our presidents are accused – rightly – of being distant from “real America” after a lifetime in the ivory towers of academia and government. Not so Ronald Reagan, humbly born and raised in small town America, visiting factory employees, office workers, and salesmen every week, hearing and absorbing their stories of real life for all those years. Modern Democrat politicians are famous for doing a one-month “listening tour” before taking office, as if attending town halls for a few weeks, at which party allies can give canned speeches, is some substitute for a real personal understanding of real life.
Ronald Reagan’s listening tour was real – and personal – often one-on-one discussions at manufacturing cells on the plant floor or office areas at GE employees’ desks. Most of the anecdotes with which he peppered his speeches came from these visits; the Ronald Reagan Foundation still has in its archives the boxes of notes that Reagan took on these trips, so he’d remember these discussions for the future.
Unlike so many politicians who tell anecdotes that were clearly provided to them by staffers or speechwriters – when not simply made up out of whole cloth – Reagan’s status as “The Great Communicator” came from retelling real examples of life that he had been told by GE employees over the years. This helped him communicate with the American people when he was president, and it helped him – personally – to be confident of the rightness of his position so that he could pursue it with clear focus and without hesitation.
In 2011, the Ronald Reagan Foundation published a book of these notes, simply titled “Ronald Reagan – The Notes,” to show us how the mind of the great president worked, now a generation ago.
We see confirmed for us what his friends had always said but the left and their lapdogs in the media had denied: that Reagan was a voracious reader, and a splendid editor who could spot the key phrases that best communicated the author’s purpose. So from Winthrop he took the line about a City upon a Hill, from Jefferson he took the truism: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.” From Churchill he took the condemnation: “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”
Unlike certain other politicians of his era, Reagan tried to always give credit to the authors. “As Thomas Jefferson taught us…”, “as Winston Churchill recognized…”, “As John Winthrop foretold in 1630…” He reminded Americans that his was not a new creed, but the historic legacy of four hundred years of the marriage of Western Civilization and the North American continent.
Whether he was speaking off the cuff or – as necessitated by the demands of the modern presidency – giving a speech written by his staff, Reagan would center his argument upon such an indisputable statement from a Founder, a settler, a philosopher, even a predecessor. He would review drafts from his speechwriters’ shop, and send back instructions to Peter Robinson, to Tony Dolan, to Peggy Noonan, saying to please work in this quote or that poem, a reference to some historical example or illustration from fiction. Invariably, the president’s contributions succeeded in elevating the work of these talented writers; his speeches still electrify us today, in print or on youtube. He knew what he stood for, and why, and how to communicate it.
This nation has had presidents who don’t understand or appreciate the Founders, and we have survived. Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Nixon, so many may have sometimes meant well, but certainly never meant what our Founding Fathers intended. They would see a problem and imagine their job was to find a way for government to fix it, so they tried, usually to horrendous results. The two presidents Bush, and both Clinton and Obama, have all come at issues from the idea that the public elected them to do things, so they must try. It doesn’t work; it cannot work. Government cannot solve a problem that government created.
By contrast, Ronald Reagan always understood that the vast majority of our nation’s problems are the result of government meddling in the first place; rather than growing the cancers, they should be cut out. Reagan’s Grace Commission Report helped cut financial waste in government; his veto pen and bully pulpit helped to restrain Congress from many more bad ideas in his eight years.
Even so, of course, he couldn’t roll back the size of government as he had hoped; he never had a House majority at any point in his two terms. But he cut the rate of government growth, and cut the federal tax rates, so that the nation’s economy could thrive.
After eight years in the White House, Ronald Reagan’s policies produced booming economic growth, kept the nation safe, and – miraculously – defeated the then-worst threat to public safety on earth: the Soviet Union.
He did it – he did it all – because he understood America like no other president in his century. He understood, and committed a lifetime to achieving, the limitless potential of limited government.
And so, for a generation now, as primary season approaches every four years, Americans have sought not just a hero, a leader, a thinker, we declare our desire by name every election: we ask if there’s a Reagan on the horizon.
Those of us who remember his presidency are fortunate indeed to have lived during the Age of Reagan.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A movement conservative during the 1980s, he served on Northwestern University’s conservative newspaper and then served a term as president of the Ethnic American Council, just one of the millions of young Republican activists whom President Reagan inspired in support of the Founding themes all across the country.
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