Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reagan's Birthday

On this day 99 years ago, Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Ill.

One may say what one will about Ronald Reagan. And I can say this. I never voted for him. And I rarely agreed with him on anything.

But when I think of Reagan, I remember Jan. 28, 1986, less than 10 days before his 75th birthday. It was the day of the Challenger disaster, when he went on national television and delivered a very moving speech about pioneers and the risks of exploration.

I seldom agree with Barack Obama, either, but he summarized how I felt about Reagan in this passage from his book, "The Audacity of Hope."
"Pride in our country, respect for our armed services, a healthy appreciation for the dangers beyond our borders, an insistence that there was no easy equivalence between East and West — in all this I had no quarrel with Reagan. And when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man his due, even if I never gave him my vote."

As I say, I didn't vote for Reagan. I didn't agree with most of his policies, many of which I believe have been counterproductive for America in the long run.

But, like Obama, I must "give the old man his due," and, in that spirit, I will say there has been no other president in my lifetime who performed the role of "comforter in chief" as well as Reagan. His speech only hours after the Challenger disaster is the best example.

I thought Bill Clinton did an adequate job at the memorial service for the Oklahoma City bombing victims in 1995. And, while I found George W. Bush's initial speech to the nation following the attacks of September 11 to be unimpressive, I will concede that he improved in the days that followed.

But neither could match Reagan.

If Kennedy set the standard for inaugural addresses with his "Ask not what your country can do for you..." line, and if FDR raised the bar for a call to action with his "a date which will live in infamy" line, then Reagan surely provided the ultimate example for consoling a shocked and grieving nation when he spoke of astronauts who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Of course, the speech was penned by a speech writer, Peggy Noonan, who borrowed that line from aviator/poet John Magee's poem, "High Flight."

But Reagan delivered the speech, and his delivery had a lot to do with the fact that it is ranked #8 in a list of the top 100 speeches in the 20th century by professors at Texas A&M University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

At some point, people started calling him "The Great Communicator," but Reagan rejected that moniker in his farewell address. "I wasn't a great communicator," he said, "but I communicated great things."

The Challenger speech may have been the best evidence of that.

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