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Reagan, Honor, and Leadership

Posted on Monday, August 21, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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President Ronald Reagan as a young lifeguard in Dixon. Illinois
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Many years ago, Ronald Reagan – then two years older than Donald Trump is now – sat with a former staffer. More by accident than by plan, and I was invited to stop in, having served in his first-term White House. What he displayed is what we need now – honesty, humility, faith, and humor.

As we approached half an hour of cheerful, cogent, uninterrupted conversation, my eyes turned to an artist’s rendition on one wall of a young man, a silhouette, standing on a dock along a river. I asked the former president what the picture was and if it had a special meaning. Of course, it did.

He was lucid and humble. He said that not long before, his old hometown – Dixon, Illinois – had given it to him at the opening of a public pool since the local river was now deemed dangerous.

The silhouette represented him – in his younger days. For seven summers, he had lifeguarded on that river, earning money needed for college, Eureka College. He graduated in 1932.

In his whimsical, wondering, guileless way, Reagan then added something. He said when they gave it to him, they showed him a piece of the dock on which that artwork had him standing.

I listened intently, waiting for the former president to explain. He said that the current often ran fast during his summers as a lifeguard and could unexpectedly grab a young swimmer.

This put him at constant attention, calm but focused. No swimmer died during those summers, but he did have to rescue swimmers during his time as a lifeguard. As a matter of habit, just for himself, he would put a small notch on the dock after each rescue.

He looked at me. “Well, that day, they showed me that piece of the dock with notches. There were…77 notches.” This was the piece they kept, and why he had the artwork – a gift. In the retelling, he seemed surprised. He said they “just said some nice things” but did not elaborate.

Behind the former president, on a side table, were photos of his family and one of Dwight D. Eisenhower signed to Reagan, ink fading. Asked, he thoughtfully noted they were the same ones he had in the White House, then brightened – telling me replicas were at the Reagan Library.

Had I been to the library? At that time, I had not said so. He encouraged me to go, saying it was paid for by friends, no public money, a thought that washed over him with wonder and gratitude.

Honest and humble, we shifted topics. I talked about how grateful I was and my family was that he had brought down the Soviet Union – with undying faith in freedom. He listened without interruptions, then reflected and glanced at his shoes. “Well, thank you…”

He knew, I knew, all of America knew – that had been a life purpose, a Herculean task, one that involved suffering critics, unblinking resolve, faith, fortitude, and converting Gorbachev. He did.

We moved on. I asked about another photo, one with Margaret Thatcher. President Reagan paused. He said he and Nancy loved the Queen and Queen Mother, and would ride with them, he and the Queen on horses, Prince Phillip and Nancy in a carriage behind.

Then he told an affectionate story about his friend, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Iron Lady, to many second only to Churchill for courage and inspiration.

New to the “G-7,” then in London, Reagan described entering a large room to see “Maggie” sitting in a corner chair, being berated by Canada’s liberal Pierre Trudeau.

As Reagan approached, Trudeau was leaning over the British Prime Minister, berating her. He was saying her conservative policies were all wrong. Thatcher – by contrast – was sitting quietly and listening. She said nothing.

Trudeau finally wandered off, and Reagan caught up with her and said, “Maggie, he had no right to treat you that way. Why did you let him get away with that?”

Reagan now looked at me and smiled. “She turned to me and said, ‘Ron, a woman must know when a man is being simply childish…” Reagan loved that and laughed in retelling the story.

Even as I type, I miss the man. He was such a good heart, such a gem, such an example of what an America-loving, uncomplicated, uncompromised leader looks like. We need those men and women again – people of honesty, humility, faith, self-deprecating good humor in leadership.

One last story. Many years after Reagan saved his 77th swimmer from the Rock River’s fast currents in Dixon, Illinois, he was hosting an elegant event at his home, dressed to the nines, as Governor of California. Behind his home was a pool. 

Out of one eye, Reagan saw a child fall into the pool. Seven years old, little Alicia Berry could not swim. Fully dressed, Reagan dived in, pulled her up, and saved his 78th soul, making nothing of it.  Then, of course, he and Thatcher would dive into another pool and save 300 million souls; we need the daring, decency, dignity, and can-do of such men and women now.   

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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PaulE
PaulE
9 months ago

Nice reminder of a time long passed RBC. When there was still some balance of power between the left and the right on the world stage and the stark differences between the two were readily apparent to anyone with two functioning brain cells. However, much has changed on both the world stage and here in the United States since then. Back in the 80s, the left was still hiding most of their true intentions from the public here in this country and elsewhere. They understood that if they showed their true intentions, the public would resoundingly kick them out of power. They needed to time to indoctrinate new generations to their way of thinking, so they could advance their agenda forward more openly.

Fast forward to today and after the left has been highly successful over the last 40 years in churning out multiple generations of “useful idiots”. Now there is no need for the left to hide their agenda. It is voiced openly on a daily basis, and they have the means to implement it through legislative and judicial means. Someone like Reagan would be shocked and frankly overwhelmed by what we have allowed this country to deteriorate to since his time in office. Yes, daring, decency, dignity, and can-do men and women are still needed, but they have to be far tougher and much more direct than in Reagan’s time. The world has changed and the leaders we need today simply have to reflect the circumstances of the times in which we all live.

David Millikan
David Millikan
9 months ago

Excellent article.

SusanW
SusanW
9 months ago

Bobby, what a heartwarming and encouraging story. Reading this gave me renewed hope that we will be blessed again with a future leader who will exhibit the same honesty, humility and humor that Reagan did each and every day. While living in Switzerland, I was fortunate to meet President Reagan. After being introduced, i immediately felt the ease and comfort of seeing an old friend. He made me laugh, asked me about my family, and my time in Bern. I was in awe. I never stopped smiling. How many leaders take the time to display interest and concern to a common citizen? As you so beautifully said “we need the daring, decency, dignity, and can-do of such men and women.” Thank you, as always, for giving us hope during such dark times. Without hope, we have nothing.

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
9 months ago

The qualities of good character President Ronald Reagan demonstrated throughout his life are surely needed these days. Very important article you wrote here Robert. The accomplishments of Ronald Reagan are something that help to define inspiration. He brought into the picture things that illustrate what the Nation needs to function properly, with a sense of honor. Respect for life, respect for freedom, self determination, keeping a sense of humor and dignity. All help to have a sense of purpose, to remember the good done by people like Ronald Reagan provide inspiration for sure. The can – do spirit is needed at present. It should be considered part of the foundation for the United States of America. Great thoughts to contemplate ,along with the principles of Faith, Family and Freedom.

.

Jeri
Jeri
9 months ago

That picture of Reagan was taken in my hometown of Dixon, Illinois at Lowell Park along the Rock River.

DEX
DEX
9 months ago

Superb piece by Mr. Charles. Aside from Jesus, Lincoln, and Churchill, Mr. Reagan is my hero. I named my two sons after Honest Abe and the Gipper and am delighted to see this piece 19 years after President Reagan passed. P.S. I attended the 40th president’s funeral in D.C. and took my Ronnie-named son with me.

Dominick
Dominick
9 months ago

None better!

Karen Knowles
Karen Knowles
9 months ago

Amen to your article, RBC!

Morgan
Morgan
9 months ago

I am speechless, I never cease to be amazed by Ronaldus Magnus

johnh
johnh
9 months ago

I pray that another person like Ronald Reagan comes along & is POTUS, before this nation is so devided our Republic will not survive. Reagan is the best POTUS in my lifetime & knew how to compromise for all Americans & not just for his party. RIP & thank you for being a role model.

Future
Future
9 months ago

Ronnie:so what got you?
trump: diabetes.
satan: get back to work.

An older blonde women laughing in the kitchen with a grey haired man.
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