Today would be Ronald Reagan’s 112th birthday. Reagan died at 93 in 2004. What we need – fittingly on his birthday – is his spirit. What was his spirit? Having worked in his White House, later kept up with the former president from afar, his spirit was a combination of goodwill and good cheer, faith in America and God, inevitable triumph of individual liberties over suppression, optimism over despondency, action over lethargy, and People’s will over government.
In practical terms, he was about staying engaged, talking straight, keeping government small, spending less, trusting your conscience, working together to advance age-old values – about getting it right on everything from national security and moral compass to humility in office and accountability.
Interestingly, he did not do any of this in an angry, shrill, dismissive, disparaging or personal way. He educated America – left, right, and middle – with stories they could all relate to, light humor. He modeled decency and the common touch that defined his entire life. He knew regular habits, respect for the Constitution, concern for your neighbor lifted everyone, politics aside.
Reagan was not born with a silver spoon. Yes, he became a movie star, governor of California, eventually president, but that was all later. Reagan’s father was an alcoholic, his mother a person of deep faith, and his early life in Illinois an abject lesson in hard living and doing well with little.
The family moved often, his father struggling to keep a job and family together. His parents – odd for the time – were deeply opposed to racial segregation, made a point of acting on that conviction.
Young Reagan started work young, no time for resentment, victimhood, or any excuses – just gratitude for a job. He wanted to work, earn his way, dreamed of making enough to buy his parents a home, which he did. For work, after football during the school year, he started lifeguarding at age 15, Rock River in Dixon. Over seven years, he pulled 77 swimmers to safety. He never stopped rescuing people.
In early 1992, speaking with him about those early years, he told me he was surprised that Dixon had saved a piece of the dock on which he often stood. He had a habit of putting a notch in one side after a rescue. There were 77 notches in the piece of dock they saved. The number surprised him.
Reagan was – in an era when this meant something – “self-made.” He would probably demur, saying no one is really self-made, since all helped along by others. But if such a person exists, he fits the bill. Lifeguard, handyman at college, radio announcer, young actor, resilient, always looking up.
In 1983, one of the years in which I worked briefly in his White House, he talked about the value of work, in particular teaching young people to appreciate work – to grow through work – and the opportunities that hard work offered. With DC’s then-Mayor Marion Barry, Reagan rolled out summer opportunities for DC youth – if they were willing to work.
Reagan knew that a “first job” was the ticket up, out, forward, beyond, to a life that offered self-respect, self-worth, and the power to earn, learn, achieve, prosper and ultimately help others. For DC and the Nation, he personally reached out to 5300 CEOs and asked their help, seeded 800,000 jobs for young people that summer, and America’s young people leaped at those opportunities.
Said Reagan, on July 20, 1983: “After years of economic uncertainty, devastating inflation, business stagnation, ever increasing taxation, and a resulting drop in investment, high interest rates and declining stock prices, we have begun…to turn things around.” Indeed he had, and that is what we need today.
Truth is, if we stay focused on that sort of turnaround – keep faith with the past and future, adopt Reagan’s confidence, perspective, sound policies, and spirit, we can get there again.
Giving credit to the private sector, Reagan noted: “It was not easy, but together – all of us together – we have the American economy on the move again.” Amazingly, in the context of modern politics, Democrat DC Mayor Barry thanked the Republican Reagan, the two joked, and onward we marched.
If you want to see him yourself, go back to that day in 1983, and just watch and wonder. Here, without embellishment or apology, was a president trying to help the youth of DC to rise, live, and thrive. He did help, and his spirit – the can do, must do, will do, and let’s do it together spirit – prevailed.
Reagan’s spirit, however, was more than a passing wonder, fad, slogan, token, or ticket to higher prosperity. It was something that grabbed those who heard him, and shook them – the Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and those who claimed no affiliation. His message resonated.
It was about America, the vitality, veracity, and personal tenacity that – coast to coast, north to south, young, old, Black, White, Hispanic, and everything in between – made American believe in themselves, not just in representative democracy, constitutional rights, institutions, and the obligation to act on opportunities, but in each other – and in the power of the individual to make his or her own future.
Reagan’s spirit was about asking yourself, whatever your background, bad luck, poor start, weak heart, adversity, or doubt that dogs your dreams, do you believe? Do you believe in yourself?
Do you believe you have something to offer, achieve, that you can rise, overcome, someday beam, that you can breathe life – for yourself – into the American dream? If you do, then do it. If you do not, you should. Reagan was the living example of hard work and a “happy warrior” prevailing. He lived life to the full, and we can too. The challenge is to pass that understanding forward. He did, and we still can.
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.