by William H. Benson
October 21, 1999
Ronald Reagan’s enemies called him the Teflon President–slick, without substance. Walter Cronkite said that of all the Presidents he knew, the most knowledgeable by far was Jimmy Carter who had a profound grasp of all the issues. But of Ronald Reagan, Cronkite’s assessment was the exact opposite.
Late in October of 1980 Reagan and Carter met in a final debate before the 1980 Presidential election. President Carter came across as petulant, defensive, and accusatory; he called for arms control to reduce the risk of war and characterized Reagan’s stated nuclear policy as “extremely dangerous and belligerant”. Reagan, on the other hand, hammered on Carter’s dismal economic record, and asked the American public, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Carter bantered back, and Reagan with a genial toss of his head, chuckled, and said, “Now there you go again.” Calm and reassurring, Reagan completely disarmed Carter.
Only those who are over twenty-five years of age today can remember the Carter years. The economy was rife with problems. The military was being dismantled despite the threat of overwhelming worldwide Soviet superiority. The rest of the world looked on the United States as a “has-been”. Even though President Carter fully understood the issues, he seemed unable or was ill-equipped to overcome and solve them. He appeared on national television and talked about a “national malaise”; the American public reacted as if they had been slapped in the face.
Ronald Reagan seemed to know that what the American people needed at that moment was leadership, confidence, and pride in themselves. He gave all that and more. Frequently during those fall days of the campaign, he said that America’s best days were not over but just about to begin. In retrospect, Reagan was clearly right, for he set the stage for America’s prosperity today.
He was divorced. He was a former movie star. At age 69 he was the oldest man ever elected to the Presidency. But with his simple stack of 3 x 5 index cards, he prepared for the role of his life, and the American people believed him. He won 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
Critics have ripped apart the new Reagan biography entitled Dutch just published three weeks ago. Its author, Edmund Morris, after fourteen years of research and writing, puts himself into the biography. He is there alongside Reagan growing up in Iowa and then in the early days in California. Morris claims that the literary device gives the biography a more immediate and personal focus for someone such as Reagan who, he says, is so mysterious and inscrutable.
Jeffrey Hart, the columnist, blasts Morris’s biography, “This isn’t history or biography. It’s anti-history, anti-biography.” And to the charge that Reagan was so mysterious, Hart disagrees.
“Reagan believed certain things, and it was obvious to everyone what they were. He had confidence in himself. He knew where he wanted to go, and he knew what he would try to do when he got there. The surprising thing is that he succeeded to such a degree.”
Reagan served two terms and then retired back to his home in California. Diagnosed several years ago with Alzheimer’s, the horrible disease has wiped clean his personal history of what he achieved and who he is. Two weeks ago Ronald Reagan Jr. admitted on “60 Minutes” that his father has not known him for at least five years.
We hear from the background noise that we are about to start another campaign race. The thoroughbreds such as Al Gore, Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, are gathering at the starting gates ready to sprint, at first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire. Circling in a not- so-shy manner behind them are the Wild Bunch: Warren Beatty, Jesse Ventura, Donald Trump, Patrick Ventura, Pat Buchanan, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who among this race of stallions will assume the White House in January 2001? That history is yet to be lived, but he or she would be wise to draw from Reagan’s playbook. Focus upon the one or two really big issues and ride them into the Oval Office.