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No one was as shocked as I was to watch the final election results from the city/county building in downtown Provo, Utah when Ronald Reagan overwhelmed President Jimmy Carter to become the 40th President of the United States.
My job was to report the news and containing my enthusiasm for the win was tough. Some six months before, Reagan’s approval rating was upside down. As low as only 30%. Carter was ahead in the polls by 10-15 points. Reagan was regarded by the news media as a clown, a circus act, a B-grade movie actor who lucked his way through his good looks into any success he’d had. They had all the negative cliché’s against him including the usual rant levied against Republicans that he had no foreign policy experience, no ability to nuance international relationships, and above all, a low intellect. A cowboy. Just another cowboy.
In particular they didn’t like his bold, declarative positions on the Soviet Union. He wanted to end the Cold War by defeating communism instead of keeping up the Ivy League intellectuals’ mantra of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and the ever popular détente. Détente was especially popular among the intellectuals in DC because it was a French word that said it ever so much better.
One of the big jabs against Reagan was his lack of specificity. Lack of “policy.” Scoundrels in media politics always love to attack candidates for lacking a “program” that they can while away their hours poring over the plan in order to find fault so they can ask deep probing questions at the next presser. Never do they learn the lessons from the boxer, Mike Tyson, that “every boxer has a plan until they get hit in the face.” Military generals all know that every Plan A is only good until the first soldier sets foot in the field. Then Plan B also disappears and training, goals and leadership experience takes over.
Reagan had vision. He had goals and leadership. In foreign affairs he wanted to end the cold war, and defeat communism. He wanted to put American interests first. The only nation-building he had in mind was on the domestic front where the stagnation, stagflation, inflation, and economic malaise of Jimmy Carter with his mortgage rates of 14% or more had crippled the economy. Reagan’s vision was “It’s Morning in America.” He wanted to make America great again as an economic super power. What was his plan? His opponent in the primary, George H. W. Bush, called his plan of tax cuts “Voodoo Economics.” David Stockman, his Director of the Budget would quarrel with him on the specifics. He didn’t really have a plan. He had an idea. A vision and the determination to see it through. Fortunately for all, he had an affable nature and the training to turn the wrath of an enemy into pudding as he did when Jimmy Carter tried to scorn him during the debates and Reagan retorted kindly with, “Oh there you go again….”
Great leaders do that. That was well illustrated in the movie Patton with George C. Scott in the title role. As they were taking Sicily Patton told one of his generals, Lucian Truscott, that he wanted him to execute an amphibious landing. General Truscott said it would take four days to do that. Patton said he wanted it done in one day. Truscott said it couldn’t be done. Patton said in effect, “Lucian, you figure out how to get it done in one day or I’ll get a general down here who can get it done in one day. But, by heaven it will be done in one day.” Truscott hated Patton that day for his bullying pronouncement, but, Truscott achieved his landing in one day. That march from the sea, by the way, became known as “Truscott’s Trot.” When Patton summoned Truscott he had no ideas, no plans and didn’t care. He had a goal and vision. He hired generals, colonels and other planners to get the job done.
Reagan was a conservative perhaps more because of the political climate than his training. Left wing liberalism was the fully entrenched scholarly philosophy of the day with virtually no conservative proponents. Reagan reacted instinctively against the tyranny of communism rather than out of a Heritage Foundation mountain of substantial briefings.
Reagan also wasn’t a trained U.S. Constitutional scholar. His traditional American values were those prevalent in his day and formed the foundation for his stances against abortion. They didn’t emanate from deeply held scholarly or seminarian study. While faith in God was central to his character, Reagan couldn’t be called a regular church goer, at least not in the sense that Jimmy Carter was. In fact those who crave a president that fit the Boy Scout codes of honest, true, chaste and traditional family values can pretty much forget about nearly all presidents except Jimmy Carter, the true Sunday School teacher. Before that you’d have to go back to Lancelot du Loc. Even Honest Abe had lots of people question his values.
In fact, some of those same traditional values didn’t hold up so well in Reagan’s personal life as he was noted as quite a womanizer or, as we more politely or kindly say, a “ladies’ man.” His affairs after his marriage to Nancy are chronicled. His child raising skills proved none too filled with bonafides with the continued rancor years after his death. Seems Dad wasn’t around much.
Reagan couldn’t hold up to some people’s standards of “consistent conservative” either. He once said “my stand to never raise taxes is in cement.” Later he’d say in his charming way as he raised taxes, “that sound you hear around my feet is the sound of cement cracking.” He also promised he’d be tough on illegal immigration and he turned around and gave a huge blanket amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
He wasn’t at all hesitant to use big government to get what he wanted. I worked with a grass roots citizen’s lobby to stop socializing the multinational bank’s losses. They were (and are) making irresponsible loans to 3rd world countries and at that time communist countries knowing full well that those countries could never pay them back. But they didn’t care because the International Monetary Fund, IMF, was guaranteeing the loans. If the countries defaulted, which they did, the IMF bailed the banks out. I created the slogan and campaign, “Stop the Big Bank Bailout.” Neal Blair was the political genius who led the fight against the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Reagan White House in giving the IMF a $8.4 billion bailout – peanuts in today’s world, but big money then. We stopped the bill for six weeks and nearly won until President Reagan signed a pork-barrel housing bill to buy off key Democrat votes to pass the bailout.
I guess I could have started a #NeverReagan movement, but, we ought to deal with what we have and make it work. Holding one’s breath until you turn blue or get what you want is juvenile. We found ways to work with President Reagan and had great help from him in the future. On balance, he was a great president. Flaws? Yes. Consistent Conservative? No way. Constitutional Conservative? Debatable on several issues. Better than Nixon, Carter, Clinton, Obama, Hillary. No debate.
Welcome to politics.