Opinion: Ronald Reagan’s centennial, Part II: An All-American American


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Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, cause for numerous political, memorial and academic observances across the country this weekend.

The Ticket invited one of the nation’s top presidential scholars, Prof. Robert Schmuhl of the University of Notre Dame, to examine the political legacy of Reagan as he relates to others of his generation, exclusively for Ticket readers.


(Scroll to bottom for Schmuhl’s biography and book information.) We’ve also included several videos by and about Reagan.

This item is Part II of Schmuhl’s writing.

Part I appeared here earlier this morning and can be viewed by clicking here.

Please use the Share buttons above to pass these on, and perhaps leave your own Reagan memories or thoughts in the Comments section below.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Ronald Reagan, American

Ronald Reagan titled his autobiography “An American Life.”

Unlike other presidential authors who put the focus on themselves—Richard Nixon’s “RN” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life”—or emphasized a theme—Gerald Ford’s “A Time to Heal,” Jimmy Carter’s “Keeping Faith” or George W. Bush’s “Decision Points”—Reagan used an indefinite article and a collective adjective.

To his way of thinking, his life was representative, one chapter in what he saw as the larger story of America.

Beyond his accomplishments as president, particularly efforts to invigorate the economy and hasten the end of the Cold War, Reagan brought to his eight White House years a sense of humor (see video just below here) and an....

....unalloyed Americanness that was always a mystery to people from other countries.

For them, his image and reality merged into the gun-toting cowboy from his Hollywood days, and he was following a script written by figures removed from public view.

At home, however, Reagan fit right in and seemed natural. (Listen to the way he talks on the video here and during his presidential campaign announcement video in Part I of today’s Ticket series.)

A modest Midwestern upbringing—“We didn’t live on the wrong side of the....

...tracks,” he’d quip, “but close enough to hear the train whistles”—wasn’t a limitation to him or his horizons. And in his 20’s the future president headed West to try his skills in communication and acting. For a couple of decades, numerous roles came his way, and so did success. Interestingly, though, Reagan evolved from playing characters to being himself—as a speaker on behalf of General Electric and later as a “citizen-politician” with firm ideas about issues and the direction of the country.

Yet, without wearing an actor’s mask, he also established connections between his present and his past.

For instance, in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne All American,” Reagan, who actually did play collegiate football at Eureka College (see 1929 photo at right) played George Gipp, a Notre Dame football star, who died shortly after his last collegiate game.

Gipp became the subject of a deathbed story (“Win One for the Gipper”) that Rockne as coach later used to rally his team during an important game.

But think about it. When Reagan had moved into politics and was asking voters to “win one for the Gipper,” he was really assuming the role of Rockne, the coach, in delivering a pep talk to inspire listeners to help someone with a nickname he’d appropriated.

That almost all the Gipp-Rockne story is fabricated (Gipp wasn’t even called “the Gipper” in his short life) adds to the artfulness, if not complexity, of its usage.

Whether player or coach and whatever the setting or occasion, Reagan radiated optimism and confidence. America’s glass was always better than half-full. (And he didn’t mind being the butt of jokes either, as evidenced by this next video of Don Rickles at a roast of then-Gov. Reagan....

Since Barack Obama became president just over two years ago, pollsters have pointed out parallels between him and Reagan. In both cases, their personal traits receive more approval and higher ratings than their governmental policies. However, until Obama’s recent speech in Tucson, he had not made an emotional, human connection with the public.

Reagan was a master at this—innate sincerity combined with words of hope. But his star-power charisma didn’t overshadow a common touch, which came through in both public and private. In her memoir, “Personal History,” the late Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, tells a story about the Reagans and others coming to her home for dinner in late 1988.

After a guest spilled a drink, she notes: “I was dumbstruck at seeing the president of the United States down on his hands and knees in the middle of the crowd, picking up the ice.” Moments like that are often as revealing as any planned or scripted performance.

Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated for the first time in 1981. Despite his age, subject to many self-effacing jokes (see videos), he always looked ahead more than behind.

Better days for America, and Americans, would dawn. He knew....

....that in his bones, repeated it in countless speeches and written statements, and helped others think likewise.

(The last example we have of that style is President Reagan’s Farewell Address (see video above) given from the Oval Office in 1989 just nine days before he turned the White House over to his vice president, George H.W. Bush, with a stern warning to his countrymen about their American history and how they must pass on its lessons to youngsters.)

Five years later in 1994 when the Great Communicator revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan chose to use a personally written letter to convey the news.

Near the end of his goodbye letter to fellow Americans, the former president writes:

When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country and eternal optimism for its future.

This particular American life ended on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.

To gauge his continuing legacy consider how many prospective candidates for president invoke his name or try to identify with him in some way. That, too, is part of the American future that Reagan created.

--Robert Schmuhl

Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

Among Schmuhl’s books are “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality” (more info here) and “Wounded Titans: American Presidents and the Perils of Power” (more info here).

he videos and the photo of Nancy Reagan courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

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