Reagan's legacy firmly eclipses label of 'amiable dunce'

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I have a confession to make. Despite the perception that any and all conservative commentators must have been Ronald Reagan fans from the beginning, I did not vote for him in 1980. I didn't vote for Jimmy Carter, either.

I voted for John B. Anderson.

A mistake? A wasted vote? Yes, and maybe. But I bought into the conventional wisdom of the time, fueled by the media: This guy Reagan is too old, he's a washed up actor and we need new ideas.

Was I ever wrong. And I knew it when I cast my vote that November. I also realized that the John Anderson who was running for president as a "third party" challenger was not the same man, ideologically, that I knew when I was a child in the Midwest.

But I voted the way I did, against my better judgment.

Here was my dilemma: When John Anderson was a Congressman, he represented our district in my hometown of Rockford, Ill. In 1964 when I was 9 years old, my grandparents took me to Washington, D.C. where we had lunch together. I was very impressed.

After all, Rep. Anderson was from our local church, and in the 1960s he was bold about his faith. Later he authored a book entitled, "Between Two Worlds: A Congressman's Choice," detailing how he balanced the world of government with his Christian beliefs. In those days, he was more conservative than when he was trying to snag more votes vs. Carter and Reagan in 1980.

The man was also rising in stature and influence in Washington, D.C.  He was inspiring, and became the one individual who sharpened my interest in history, biography and politics. I respected that, and remain grateful to him for paying attention to a young kid from back home. That stays with you. 

So, I cast my vote for John Anderson, and immediately felt remorseful.  He had turned so far too the left. But I chalked it up to loyalty, then immediately realized how important Ronald Reagan would be on the American scene. I knew I would support him in 1984 and beyond.


A complete package
This was not the bumbling cowboy, eager to nuke the Reds. He wasn't afraid to tell it like it was, making difficult choices. The military was restored to greatness, too. Reagan was consistent, smart and passionate. He also showed America how to weather difficult times with good humor and civility.

Where so many politicians are enticed by the "inside the beltway" syndrome and their core beliefs are watered down, Reagan was open and transparent.  

As governor of California he had signed a pro-abortion bill that he later recanted. From then on he became one of our most pro-life leaders. Other politicians (too many) have tossed out their pro-life commitments in order to gain favor with the Planned Parenthood crowd. That's easy to do, and Anderson fell into that trap as well. Reagan demonstrated something we don't see as much these days: Leadership.

This month, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, so many thoughts come to mind. For starters, it all seems so long ago that he was president. From his inauguration in 1981 until he said goodbye to D.C. in January 1989, so much of those days seem like ancient history.


Vivid images
But the strong images remain, and should give us pause as we consider where we're going as a nation. President Reagan survived an assassination attempt and gave credit for his survival to God. He publicly recommitted whatever time remained in his life to his Creator.

Reagan wasn't afraid to call evil what it is. His persistence (and no doubt plenty of prayer) helped defang the Soviet Union and bring down the Berlin Wall. He made us proud to be Americans again, while demonstrating a brilliant mix of assertiveness and fresh approaches, tempered with heartfelt humility.

In the past few years, those who dismissed Reagan as an "amiable dunce" had to face the fact that he was a deep thinker, as evidenced by reams of discovered commentaries and diaries, written in his own hand.

When the 40th president passed away in 2004, after years of battling Alzheimer's disease, even his administration's biggest foes admitted he was someone unlike any other. He was certainly human and not without flaws, but he was unique and effective.


Legacy withstands
Since then, many people have returned to their ways of trying to revise the Reagan record. But history doesn't lie, and legacies become clearer as time marches on.

I was honored to work with the president on two occasions in 1988. One of my best friends (for more than two decades) is his son, Michael.  Today, I serve on the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors.  It's a long way from those early years.

As life speeds by at warp speed, the more we realize that we are, indeed, "a vapor." But along the way God gives us special moments, the character-building challenges and yes, some people who capture our attention, rising above the fray and standing tall. I am so thankful to have lived in this stretch of history, where we can witness some pretty phenomenal events… and very special leaders like Ronald Wilson Reagan.


Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 6 to 9 a.m., and on KPRZ 1210AM from 2 to 4 p.m. E-mail: mark@marklarson.com.


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Published, February 2011