The meaning of Mr. Reagan
As 'symbol-in-chief,' he ineradicably changed the presidency.
On Jan. 20, 1989, President Ronald Wilson Reagan pretended to move out of the Oval Office. He'd actually packed up his things the day before, clearing the way for his successor, George Bush. But no one had photographed the historic moment, so on Inauguration Day he did it again - for the cameras.Skip to next paragraph
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He tapped his now-empty desk, on cue. He went to the door and gave the room a sentimental look.
"You know what I was thinking while all that went on?" said Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was there. "This was the conclusion of a big dramatic production ... and there, all alone against the backdrop of the Oval Office, was Ronald Reagan shooting his last take."
Alas, for the person that was true. Mr. Reagan faded quickly after leaving office. Disease robbed him of the chance to be anything to the nation but a symbol of his better days.
But the production - the production lives. Ronald Reagan ineradicably changed the presidency, and presidential politics. He was the nation's symbol-in-chief, not its chief legislator. He made many American voters feel their nation was both virtuous and governable, at a time when that was in doubt.
Will any president ever again give a State of the Union without that most Reaganesque of moments, the introduction of heroes from the balcony?
The secret of Reagan's political success was that he was "uncompromisingly unoriginal," in the words of one observer. In the era of "Doonesbury," the one comic strip he read every day was the old-style soap opera "Mary Worth."
He believed in the old verities. Communism was not just mistaken. It was evil. Taxes were not just a burden. They were evil, too.
Opponents saw an aging actor who thought that oil slicks made air healthy, and wrote him off. They underestimated the power of sincere belief delivered simply, with a smile.
"I just didn't feel that people would vote for him," sighed Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, the Democratic ex-governor of California, years after his 1966 loss to Reagan.
The man who would become the 40th president of the United States had extremely ordinary origins.
He was the second son of John and Nellie Reagan, born on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. When the young "Dutch" was 9, his shoe salesman father moved the family to nearby Dixon, in search of a better life. What the father found instead was a deepening addiction to alcohol.
"We didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle real loud," Reagan remembered later.
Dutch struggled to haul his troubled father in the door more than once. Perhaps in reaction, he became an active participant in youth programs at the local Disciples of Christ church. He was attracted to what was then called "practical Christianity," a strain of worship that emphasized the importance of virtuous acts in the wider secular world.
In his Washington years he attended religious services infrequently. But even as president he would not write out mild epithets with full spelling. In his speech notecards, they were always "h - l," and "d - n."
He spent his youthful summers as a lifeguard on the banks of the Rock River. From 1927 to 1932, he rescued 77 swimmers from the river's swift current - though, if truth be told, not all 77 thought they needed rescuing.
At nearby Eureka College, Reagan developed into a dramatist and budding politico: A student strike he helped lead forced the college president from office. A quick study with stage presence, he moved easily into the new world of radio after graduation.
But he wanted more from life than announcing Minnesota Gopher football. On a trip to California he wangled a screen test at Warner Brothers. The camera emphasized his lean good looks and native geniality, and the young man from the Midwest quickly established a Hollywood career playing, basically, himself.
"That's my Dutch. That's the way he is at home," said his mother after seeing her son on screen for the first time.
In later years political opponents used the term "former actor" to try to denigrate Reagan as an intellectual lightweight. In truth, actor Reagan was intensely interested in public policy. His constant chatter about issues bored his first wife, Jane Wyman, and helped lead to their divorce.
As a young man he had been an ardent defender of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. As late as 1950 he campaigned for the liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in her losing US Senate race against Richard Nixon.
But the influence of his conservative older brother, Neil, plus Hollywood politics, pushed him toward the right. As president of the Screen Actors Guild he testified before the House Un- American Activities Committee on communist infiltration of the film industry.