My grandmother's wake would have seemed like a party to a stranger who happened upon us in the funeral home parking lot, our cars set up like tailgaters at a football game; drinks pouring, most of us standing huddled and shivering in the cold, yet laughing and smiling. We were celebrating grandma's long life and telling the same, wonderful stories we had been sharing for years, stories we would pass on to our children. Grandma was old, she had lived a full life and left us with a rich legacy of memories and recipes.
This is how I will deal with the death of Ronald Reagan. I will celebrate all he meant to my life. And for someone whose graduated from high school the year Reagan was elected, he posed a rather large impact on my young adulthood. As with grandma, not all the stories will be great ones, not all will make me laugh or smile. But they are part of his legacy, and we will discuss them at dinner or while watching his funeral procession on television or while hoisting a drink to him later on tonight.
I was eleven when LBJ died, yet I remember it vividly. I watched part of his funeral at my aunt's house, on her black and white tv and I remember thinking - however absurdly - that presidents should not die. I had no idea at the time of LBJ's rather dark legacy (nor had I any way of knowing that thirty years later, I would form a rather bizarre obsession with the man and his politics), but it just seemed very surreal to watch the funeral of a former president on television. Instead of exploring these thoughts, I went outside to play, making the conscious decision to remain oblivious to history.
Here I am 31 years later, flipping through every news channel, wading through every news site and blog, soaking up every single piece I can find about Reagan. The contrast between what you can find here
is very interesting; I wish I had paid more attention when I was eleven because it might have laid an interesting ground for my political formation had I read the LBJ obituaries. I can't imagine that they appeared anything like Reagan's do today.
Growing up in the 60's and 70's was to grow up with the words Cold War
hanging over your head every day. We had air raids in school where we had to hunker under our desks or squat down in the hallway with our heads tucked between our legs. Just in case the Russians bomb us, they said. And that is really what they said. Our teachers and parents were not shy about our reasons to be afraid; they had not yet heard the term political correctness, they did not make any attempt to couch their hatred of the Russians in polite terms. The Russians were our enemy. They were the Red Menace. The Commies. The people who would "push the button" that would send us orbiting into space towards certain death.
There was always that provocative button. For years, I would dream about this button, think about it, fear it and my imagination would let it grow to nightmare proportions. In my mind, I saw a windowless room, dark and cold. In the middle of the room was a glass case. Ensconced in that case was the big, red button. Russians sat around this glass case all day, fingers poised, faces continually contorted in a mixture of defiance and power. Just one word. One whispered word from a head commie, one wrong word from an angry American, and that's all it would take. An electronic panel would slide open and the button would automatically glow a sinister, bright red. Maybe it would flash. And the commies that had been gathered around the glass case, just waiting and waiting, would draw straws to see who got to push the button. But the biggest, baddest commie of all, some guy who, in my young, frightened mind, had a face full of pock marks and scars, making him uglier and redder than all the other commies. He was tall and broad and his eyes glowed like fiery coals. He would slowly inch his finger into the case while his comrades watched, rubbing their hands together in maniacal glee. Sometimes they even drooled with anticipation. And then the large, grubby index finger would poise over the button -hesitating for just one moment while the other commies held their breath and then a moment of complete silence while the head commie slowly pushed down on the red button. A map of America would appear in my head at that moment, a perfect mushroom cloud rising from the center and spreading outward. We were dead.
For most of the years that dream sequence plagued me, I was of the mind that America was a bad guy. I was aware that we had a "button" as well (hence the popular term at the time, "push-button war"), and whatever news I read led me to believe that Americans were strong-arming the Russians into playing the button card. If you don't behave nicely, I'll have no choice but to kill you!
That should be spoken in a highly affected Russian accent, by the way.
Along comes Reagan. I was in the midst of a flower-power, no-nukes stage, one which saw me wanting to move to San Francisco so I could commune with the over-aged hippies still lingering on Haight Ashbury. So I did what any 18 year old, first time voter with liberal tendencies would have done. I voted for John Anderson
. He wasn't Reagan and he wasn't Carter and he had the same name as that guy from Yes
(even though the musician Anderson spelled his name Jon
). You would think that a faux liberal like myself would have been enamored of Jimmy Carter, but his handling of the Iran hostage crisis irked me; he was a wimp of the highest order. I suppose the warning bells were being set off in my mind even then and I had I listened they would have been telling me that I wasn't really a liberal; I just liked smoking pot and listening to the Grateful Dead.
The years of Reagan's presidency spanned the same years that I went from stupid teenager to grown woman. Reagan was inaugurated the January after I graduated high school. He remained president until shortly before I gave birth to my first child. That's a lot of growing up I did under the presidency of one man.
I grew to love Ronald Reagan. Even through the Iran/Contra crisis, even with Nancy's Just Say No campaign, I loved his presidency. He wanted us, more than anything, to be proud to be Americans. He offered us hope where Carter had only offered us (or myself, at least) despair. He made us feel strong and powerful, which was just what we needed at that time.
I loved Reagan, the man. His smile warmed me. His personality made me feel as if he were speaking just to me every time I watched him address the nation. He cried with me after the explosion and spoke words
that filled my heart with a bittersweet hope:
bq. And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them...
Ronald Reagan was a father figure. Even a grandfatherly figure. His smile was genuine, his heart big and gracious. So I looked for Ronald Reagan to dispel my fears, to help me learn about pride of country, to feel good about the future. And he did all that. Lest you doubt Reagan's impact on my Russia-phobia, look at all things that happened during his presidency:
* 1983 Proposes Strategic Defense Initiative
* 1986 Gorbachev ends economic aid to Soviet satellites
* 1986 Reagan and Gorbachev resolve to remove all intermediate nuclear missiles from Europe
* 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev sign treaty to remove all medium and short-range nuclear missiles
* 1989 Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan
* 1989 Poland becomes independent
* 1989 Hungary becomes independent
* 1989 Berlin Wall falls
* 1989 Communism falls in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Rumania
* 1988 Soviet empire is over
For one who grew up with such an intense fear of the Russians that she dreamed about them nightly, those events were life altering. Reagan was the hero who would vanquish my nightmares of the red button forever.
I did slip back into my liberal tendencies for a bit after Reagan left office. But the groundwork for my conservatism had been laid by President Reagan. His idea of "peace through strength" is why I supported the first Gulf War. It was that idea that would become the basis for my abandoning liberalism in 2001. It was that idea, in fact, that always made me a bit of an outcast amongst my more liberal friends. My love for Ronald Reagan was something I hid from them, for fear of being thrown out of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy (yes, there is
one of those). Yet it was Reagan's ideology that gave me the push I needed after 9/11 to embrace my true self and my true politics.
I have never been more comfortable than I am here in Reagan's World, where pride in your country is a good thing, where hope always remains, where the future is something to look forward to and not fear.
The Red Menace is long gone. The nightmares of the red button have evaporated. There are other enemies to meet, other wars to win, other fears to quash. I truly believe that if we continue to work towards Reaganís' vision of America's future, we will not only win, but we continue to spread the prosperity of democracy throughout the world, making us all richer in the end.
This is my celebration of Ronald Reagan's presidency.