Friday, January 20 will mark the silver anniversary of the "Great Communicator's" swearing in, to the highest office in the land. And although in many ways it seems like just like yesterday, when I pause and think about it, I realize just how long ago it really was and just how much things have really changed since that day.
On that day in 1981, there we were, not even a decade out of Vietnam and trying to grope our way through the Carter malaise. This nation had been forced to endure Nixon's falling, Ford's stumblings, and Carter's failings. And at the moment he raised his right hand, I remember a mix of optimism and uncertainty, filling the air.
The optimism was a result of the feeling that anything, was better than what we had been getting. Those that are old enough to remember the days of double-digit inflation can remember the collective sense of hopelessness and despair that permeated this nation, at that time. Apathy, lethargy, false guilt and shame, all were normal emotions we felt, as we watched and experienced a four-year series of domestic and foreign policy failures. This nation had no self-esteem, no self-worth, and it had no self-confidence.
The uncertainty came from the questions we all quietly were asking ourselves.
At this point in time, I was about to be discharged from the Army (honorably, of course). I had served four years, my time was about up. The morale was low under Carter and like many before me, I wanted out of that man's Army. My post-service plans were already set up, and a new President with hopes, dreams, and a sales campaign was not going to dissuade me.
But to many that remained, the anxiety was widespread. Rumors of Reagan being a warmonger were circulated, many times daily during the course of casual conversation.
One guy in our unit wasn't the brightest star in the sky, but was a nice guy that could take a joke, even if it was on him. The day after the inauguration, I couldn't resist telling him that Reagan was calling a national alert of all American forces later in the day. If you could have seen the look in his eyes for a moment, at least until I smiled and let him know that it was just a joke ( a poor one, but a joke nonetheless). He laughed it off and continued on to the mess hall. But in his mind, and the minds of others, there was an element of anxiety about what this man Reagan was all about.
Can you blame them?
The Soviet threat factory was in full swing and emboldened by the unchallenged invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet military. Islamofascism was being further merged with the Palestinians' terror campaign against Israel. And Carter was daily demonstrating his ineptitude in dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis. In short, we believed that there was nothing we could do about any of it, except react in weak fashion like we had been overly conditioned to do. Yet in the midst of all of this, here came Ronald Reagan verbally challenging our weak reactions to all of this madness.
People had to ask, was he serious or was he just blowing smoke to get elected?
Now let me be the first to say, he made mistakes. He was, afterall, human. He knew it. The liberals knew it. And they made damned sure that everyone else knew it too. But Reagan being Reagan always let it blow off of him. He never let the left rattle him.
One situation that was described in a Reagan biography (one that I don't know the name of right now, because my son has swiped it from me and hasn't given it back yet) involved one particular moment during his administration, when the liberal leaning media was just hammering him relentlessly, daily. I believe it was Donald Regan (but I could be wrong) that came into the Oval Office one morning and saw him reading one of the morning newspapers. When the President saw him, he started on a what appeared to be an angry rant. He said something to the effect of:
Have you read the paper this morning? I can't believe what they are saying. O'Malley is selling the Dodgers.
Despite the pressure of the job and the bad press he received throughout most of his administration, he never lost his sense of humor. Unlike many that came before him and many after him, this man had a deep sense of peace about him. He knew what his goals were. And he had a deep sense of conviction that what he wanted to accomplish, was the right thing to do. He was a visionary.
We could list the accomplishments and elaborate endlessly. So, I will leave that to others.
But what he will best remembered for (at least by me) is a speech he made in Berlin, six and a half years after taking office. The following excerpt from that speech does more to define who Ronald Reagan was and what he was about than anything he had ever said, before or after. This particular passage answered any question that was asked on that January day, in 1981:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
And, in just two and a half short years after that famous speech, part of his dream was realized. After many wrote his words off, as nothing more than the usual anti-Soviet rhetoric, it came down. And with it an empire, all without firing a shot.
Although it occurred after he left office, I am sure that even his successor would agree that this significant historical event would never have been possible, unless the man that occupied the White House before him, hadn't had a clear sound vision of what freedom meant. Unless the man before him hadn't had a vision and the courage to pursue it (despite the naysayers and the skeptics), it may very well have taken many years for that symbol (that divided a continent) to come down, if ever at all.
So, before we knew it, anxiety, fear, and doubt all turned to confidence and pride. It was no longer an embarassment to be an American. Once again we could all hold our heads high, as a nation and as individuals of that nation.
Long live the memory of Ronald Wilson Reagan and may his dream live on.