The Great Ronald Reagan & Me

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old on February 6. As the partisan passions fade, everybody is starting to recognize the greatness of the man. President Obama recently read a Reagan biography for inspiration and wrote an article in USA Today praising him.  

Any president who leads a big change will provoke dislike on the part of his opponents and I recall the rabid hatred among some of them in the 1980s. They can be forgiven some of their faults. Reagan was a very insightful & intelligent man and a hard worker. We know that now from reading his journals and from other sources coming out about him. But he evidently liked to hide these things. Maybe he was modest or maybe it was a strategy.  

Ronald Reagan used to say that you can accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. The easygoing persona that he projected allowed lots of people to feel they deserved credit. It also allowed people to give him things he wanted w/o appearing to give in. Reagan didn’t score points off the failures of others, but his affable personality also led opponents to underestimate him. They thought many of his accomplishments were just dumb luck. In my experience, someone who is consistently “lucky” has something special going on. Only a man truly confident in himself can behave as Reagan did. That is one reason he was such a unique leader.

I voted for Reagan in 1980 & 1984. It was a little hard for me to do in 1980. I had voted for Carter in my first election in 1976 and I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in one of the nation’s most liberal enclaves. When I would say anything good about Reagan, or even when I didn’t join in the criticism of him, my colleagues would make fun of me. There is considerable social pressure in a liberal university setting to “rebel” within acceptable margins. I was finishing my MA in history and looking forward to going on to my PhD. As I recall, most of my colleagues considered Jimmy Carter too conservative and Reagan was clean off the map. The popular candidate around my part of town was a guy called Barry Commoner. Commoner was a bit of a nut, but he said the right things about the environment and was sufficiently obscure to get the “intelligent” student vote. 

Anyway, it came as a surprise to me too that Reagan made sense to me. Up until that time, I just assumed that I was a type of liberal, which was the local default option. I think that my vote for Reagan actually had significant effect on my life. Of course, not the vote itself, but the cognitive dissonance it provoked.  I have never been good at keeping secrets and so I talked about it with my friends. They treated me like someone who had been in the sun too long and tried to explain why I was just being foolish.

As I listened to their arguments and defended myself, I came to understand that I really did not hold the same sorts of views as they did. I started to read more widely and came to lots of different conclusions. One of the very practical changes I made was in my course of study. I began to perceive myself as a bit of an outsider in my history-sociology circles. I still loved history, but I became more interested in practical things like business (IMO a kind of applied history) and decided to get an MBA. This was greeted with some distress by my friends. One well-meaning guy carefully explained to me that an MBA was a kind of “trade school” degree and it was not the kind of thing somebody like me should do. For me, at least, the MBA was a lot more of an intellectual challenge than my MA, but maybe that was just me.

You follow well-worn paths for maybe 95% of your life. This is something you have to do, since nobody could abide the chaos of constant uncertain change. There are a small number of inflection points, however. These are usually little things. You may be almost unaware of them at the time, but over time they take you off the old path and put you on a new one. The little half turn doesn’t seem like much, but there can be substantial divergence a few miles down the path as the one change leads to another. 

Somebody once told me that there are only around 5-7 inflection points in any life and if you think about it, you can probably identify them. They are rarely the big, shocking events we think of. The road to Damascus type conversions are the ones we mark, but they may actually be the culmination of a long process of change, not the beginning.  By the time you make the public announcement, or even know it yourself, it may have been stewing for a long time.

Looking back, my decision in 1980 to vote for Ronald Reagan was one of those little decisions that changed the way I thought of myself and ended up changing lots of other things too. So like all Americans, I can thank Ronald Reagan for what he did for the country, but I also have a personal reason to be happy that he came along.