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At 100, why Ronald Reagan still matters

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A century after his birth, Ronald Reagan still looms large over the landscape of American politics. Everyone from U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, who kept a cardboard cutout of Reagan in his campaign office during his recent campaign, to President Barack Obama have invoked Reagan as a model of effective governance. For Republicans, he has become the de facto godfather of the party, a man nearly on par with Lincoln. "If you start ticking off presidents all the way back as far as you can remember, I think he stands out as one of the top three or four that we've had in this country," says former Utah Congressman Jim Hansen.

Reagan's connections with Utah were surprisingly deep and meaningful. While U.S. presidents dating back to Ulysses S. Grant visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Lyndon B. Johnson considered David O. McKay a close confidant), none came to Utah more than Reagan. "As a politician he made nine trips here as a candidate or someone who came and spoke to the state conventions, or to visit BYU," says Ron Fox, a White House advanceman from Nixon to George W. Bush. "He just had an affinity for the people."

The Deseret News' Michael De Groote and Paul Edwards recently sat down with eight Utahns who knew Reagan well, from his former assistant secretary of state to the man who kept his schedule to the wife of his solicitor general. Their conversation revealed a man who continues to wield influence even after his death.

Michael De Groote: Time magazine's cover this week has a photo illustration of President Reagan with President Barack Obama. In what ways are President Obama and President Reagan similar? In what ways do they diverge?

Ambassador Greg Newell: They are similar in being articulate. A difference is that President Reagan was an experienced, wise leader born of many years. President Obama has been learning his way. He lacked that experience. Experience gives judgment and wisdom. Reagan had both. Obama has neither.

Lt. Gov. John Harmer: I can give you two stories that illustrate the difference. We were in a staff meeting once in Gov. Reagan's office. And it got very, very heated. There were about six of us around the desk with the governor. It got very intense. So he reached over and picked up the jellybeans off his desk. He put a couple in his mouth, and then he handed it to the person next to him and the jellybeans went around the room. And when the jellybeans got back to Reagan it was very calm, very civil, everybody was being polite. It was a masterful example of leadership in a tense situation.

The other story is we were walking down the hall from his office to the elevator. On the wall were a series of very, very bitter political cartoons against him. And I looked at him and said, "What do you got these on the wall for?" And he said, "Oh, I love them. Whenever I see one I write the editorial cartoonist and ask for it. Every time I walk down this hall, I remember I'm human and I make mistakes and people can be very angry with me." So I'm suggesting, from what little I know about President Obama, that the difference is that Reagan never forgot that he was what he was and never needed to be reminded that the people around him needed to be respected.

Sen. Jake Garn: The thing I want to add about that is his absolute honesty. Too many people in high positions hate to ask questions, they want to know everything. But on the space program, I can't tell you how many times I was called down to the White House and he would ask, "Jake would you please explain this to me? Would you tell me about this program?" And he actually called me, I was on the space shuttle Discovery, and the commander said, "Jake, there's a telephone call for you." And I said, "Really?" And he said, "Yeah." And I got on and I said, "Who is this?" And he said, "It's Ron." And I said, "Ron who?" "Well, I hate to say this, but it's President Reagan and I just wanted to call and see how you are doing."

De Groote: What is Ronald Reagan's legacy to America?

Janet Lee Chamberlain: I think Reagan's legacy is the uniting of all of us together, wanting us to be a better country, a better people. I saw that in every walk of his life — when we were in Washington and when he came back in 1990 to speak at BYU and the way he united the students. And they were glad to be Americans. Along with that, I saw in a very closed unit, as he came to speak at BYU, we had a little time with him, probably about 40 minutes in a room before he went out to speak to the student body. He could so easily have said, "I need this time to myself." He spent time with every one of my children. And my youngest child had just been elected student body president of her elementary school — a sixth-grader. And he sat down on a chair and he talked to her about how that's how he began in politics in elementary school. Then he talked with her about what it meant to be a good leader and a good American. And I loved that about him.

Rep. Jim Hansen: As you look at the presidents of the United States, what they've done, if you look back as far as Lincoln — another one we hold in very high esteem, the Great Emancipator. We look at FDR, maybe we don't agree with his politics, but we'll always remember what happened during that Depression, and he will always stand out to a lot of people. I think you put your finger on Ronald Reagan. He made us proud that we are Americans. I remember when he stood up in Salt Lake and said, "I'm a sagebrush rebel." Boy, everyone there thought that was wonderful. Every group he went to, they'd go out saying, "He's our kind of guy. We love this guy." And that could be a labor union, it could be a group of CEOs, it could be anything, they just seemed to love Ronald Reagan. He just seemed to have the ability to do that. So if you start ticking off presidents all the way back as far as you can remember and whatever you heard in history, I think he stands out as one of the top three or four that we've had in this country.

Paul Edwards: When I think of his legacy, I think of his ability to go outside of the United States and project this powerful vision for American freedom. And he was unafraid in any circumstance to stand up for freedom. It wasn't just a catch phrase with him. He really embraced the challenges of freedom. He knew it was less orderly than having other kinds of systems in place. He knew it didn't guarantee anything for Americans, but that it presented tremendous opportunity. More than any other American president, we have this lasting legacy of people being able to embrace the economic and other kinds of freedoms that America affords and he was the best defender of freedom.

Newell: I'll pick up on that as well. One of his first actions, as Sen. Garn will remember well, was Project Democracy, unleashing the minds and the hearts of the people with their own voice. And I recall very vividly the White House in those days when he announced this as one of his first initiatives. When he took over the presidency, in this hemisphere alone there were some 73 percent of people living under some form of democratic rule. And when he left office eight years later it was 98 percent.

Dick Richards: The underlying concept of Ronald Reagan is that this is the Promised Land. This is a land better than all others in the world — more freedom, more opportunity. And he believed that the Constitution was inspired by God and he felt that he had a mission in his role to preserve it. He was that clear about it. And I think that is what motivated him in all the things that he did.

Edwards: He knew how to use symbols, and he restored to the presidency a kind of dignity that I think was lost under Carter, who bought into this idea that things were shrinking, and declining and we had to adapt to that. Reagan just pushed that aside philosophically, and then also symbolically. And it wasn't about opulence, it was about the dignity of the office, I think, to be able to project the power of America abroad you need to have a dignified White House, you need to have appropriate decorum, protocol and a certain amount of elegance, and he just was able to bring that to the office in a way that was much needed after Carter and after Watergate.

De Groote: These days everybody wants to invoke Ronald Reagan. They want to be associated with Ronald Reagan — from Sen. Mike Lee to Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr. How do today's Republicans measure up to the Reagan ideal? Or do they?

Garn: Obviously you can't just generalize. There are some people who are exactly like Ronald Reagan — as far as his philosophy. Others are more liberal, more moderate. But he will always be a hero to all of those groups because of his personal integrity and directness.

Chamberlain: Ronald Reagan had a unique personality. He was so able to disagree without being disagreeable. He had a warmth about him that drew the country together in a way that I think all hopeful politicians would desire to do. He also had a vision for America, and the ability to articulate that vision so that people could hear him and understand him. And then he had that characteristic that we can't really define, call it charisma, call it leadership, and that caused people to want to follow him. Putting those three things together made him a great president.

Edwards: You see a lot of contemporary conservatives try to invoke Reagan. It's interesting to see that they often get pieces of him rather than the whole broad tent that he was really able to pull together so effectively. And I like Janet's point about how warm he was in just any personal setting; he was just so gracious. It would be wonderful for contemporary conservatives to embrace the personal warmth and the broad tent that Ronald Reagan was able to exhibit in his personal and professional life.

De Groote: It could be argued that today the voice of conservatism is talk radio — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck. Would Reagan embrace these people?

Gov. Norm Bangerter: Well I don't know if he would like it or not. I've always said talk radio does brain damage, on either side of the issue, because they have a point of view that they continue to send out regardless, sometimes, of the facts on either side. The thing about Ronald Reagan, to him there was right and there was wrong and there weren't 22 or 30 shades of gray in between. It was either right or it was wrong. And he said, "We're going to do what is right." And you can depend upon it.

Hansen: But he could be tough. "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev." That was pretty tough. I think the toughest I've ever seen him was in Reykjavik (Iceland) and he walked around the table and leaned down to Gorbachev and said, Nyet (no in Russian) to something they were asking for. The next day we saw a tremendous change in how they were approaching the United States. Up to that point they got what they wanted. They expected a kiss on the cheek that they got from the previous President. They didn't get a kiss on the cheek from this man and he changed it around, because he was so warm, that they became very good friends. Gorbachev was at his funeral.

Bangerter: I would say he was an America first man. And I like that. We don't have enough of that.

De Groote: Tell us about Ronald Reagan and Utah. What kind of connections did he have to Utah and why did he come here so often?

Bangerter: He got a lot of votes. That's a good reason to go anywhere. [laughter] Reagan felt comfortable being in Utah; the people were real. They didn't put on particular airs. I think there's an affinity, that Utah is a good barometer, it's a very Republican state, a very conservative state.

Richards: I was party chairman in Utah in 1968 when we invited Ronald Reagan to come address our convention. That was a year when we were thinking about nominating a candidate for president. Richard Nixon was the frontrunner at the time. Ronald Reagan got up and gave a speech and he just mesmerized the audience, I mean he just took it over. In fact, the Nixon people were mad at me, they called me inside and said, "Dick, why the hell did'ya invite him for?" They were unhappy but the Utah people have loved him ever since.

Ron Fox: Reagan spent a lot of time in Utah. He made nine trips here starting in '68. And I don't know how many trips he made out here as an actor or maybe doing Death Valley Days, but as a politician he made nine trips here as a candidate or someone who came and spoke to the state conventions, or to visit BYU. He just had an affinity for the people. Going through the Deseret News archives, I found over 900 photographs of him in Utah. The one I think most people all remember is when they brought in the elephant to the 1980 State Republican Convention, and I think it surprised him, and he came up there and shook hands with the trunk. It was a great image.

Harmer: One day we were talking about welfare reform, and I said, "Have you ever been to an LDS Bishop's storehouse?" He said, "What is that?" I told him and he said, "I'd like to go." So a few days later we went out to the LDS Bishop's Storehouse in Sacramento. He had scheduled 30 minutes to be there. We went inside, and there were people that were doing tomatoes. And he went down the line and shook hands with everybody and asked what they were doing, who they were. And then we sat down and the 30 minutes was over and his driver came in and said "Governor, we need to leave." And he said, "Call Helene (that was his secretary) and tell her to cancel my appointments this afternoon." He stayed for two and a half hours, listening, learning. At staff meetings after that, he didn't want to say "the Mormons" and so he would say, "in Utah, they do it this way." And he always equated that experience with Utah. But repeatedly, many times, when the issue of welfare came up, he would go back to that experience and would talk about it and would say, "That's what we've got to do for the people of California."

Edwards: It is unusual for Republican presidential candidates to pay much attention to Utah because it's such a safe state for them. So I think the number of trips is indicative of some special relationship that's stronger than just wanting to get votes because often times we're taken for granted.

De Groote: What is something that we might not know about Reagan?

Garn: On one of his trips here, he said, "Jake is there anything else I can do for you while I'm here?" We'd finished all of the public meetings. And I said, "Well, there's something that's very important to me and that is a children's hospital, Primary Childrens Hospital." And he said, "Would you like to take me up to see it?" And all of his staff, and the president's plane was waiting and so on, and he said, "Would you take me up there?" And I said, "Yes." And he went up to Primary, went through the wards, shook hands with little kids, patted babies on the head and so on, and he spent about 45 minutes up there going through Primary Children's Hospital.

Harmer: I can share with you two stories that are not widely known, that can tell you about his depth of feeling about the American military. We had a meeting one day scheduled in his office, and we were all there except Governor Reagan. And I said to Helene Von Damm, his secretary, "Where's the governor?" She said, "He's delivering flowers." I said, "What?" She said, "He's delivering flowers." And then she showed us this letter. It was a letter from a serviceman in Vietnam who had sent five dollars addressed to the governor. And it said, "Dear Governor, a year ago my wife and I were married. And this day is our anniversary, it happened to be the day of our meeting. Would you please arrange for some flowers to be sent to my wife?" So he took the five dollars and bought a fifty dollar bundle of roses and went out to the house in this very modest neighborhood. When the woman answered the door, there stood the governor of California with an armful of roses. "Happy Anniversary, from the Governor, and your husband," he said and left.

The other story is the other end of the spectrum. In 1971 there was a major earthquake in the San Fernando Valley. In the north end of the valley there was a veterans facility made of wood, four stories high, and it had collapsed. He and I arrived there at the same time, and we were taken around the veterans facility by the director there. There was no media there, it was just the two of us. As we were standing by the hospital they were bringing out the bodies. Twenty-one veterans died in that hospital when it collapsed on that day. We were standing alone looking down on these body bags of about eight or nine veterans, and he began to talk very quietly, just to himself, about how wrong it was. We had asked the director when one of the bodies was brought out, "Who is this?" The director explained who it was and Reagan said, "What do you know about his family?" And the director said, "We don't know anything about his family, he never had a visitor in the years that he was here." Reagan talked about how wrong it was, that a man who had sacrificed for his country shouldn't be left alone. And then as the time came for us to go, again there were no cameras, nobody else just the two of us, he brought his arm up into a full military salute. He stood there for maybe 30 seconds standing over these dead veterans, and then walked back to the limousine and left. He had this intense feelings about the veterans. Much more emotional and much more real than I think most people realize.

Garn: Well just to follow up on that, I was down at the White House for a meeting with (Sen.) Paul Laxalt, a friend of his before they were both governors. And, I walked in and (Reagan) stood up and saluted me. And I said, "Mr. President, what's that all about," and he said, "Well, I didn't know you'd been a military pilot. I have a great deal more respect for you now that I know you're more than just a senator." [everyone laughs]

De Groote: President Reagan was often called "The Great Communicator." How important is it for a leader to be a great communicator?

Bangerter: Well, it certainly helps. And it may be overrated. We have had some pretty good presidents that were great speakers, Dwight Eisenhower was a motivational speaker, but I think that, again, it isn't just his speaking. I'm one who believes, "Watch what they do not what they say." And that was one thing that was consistent about Ronald Reagan.

Chamberlain: In his ability to communicate, sometimes just by short one-liners, he communicated things even beyond exactly what he said. When he was shot, when he was right there in the emergency room, he tried to put everybody at ease: "I hope all you doctors are Republicans." Now apparently things were so tense at that period of time that nobody paid any attention to it, they didn't even laugh. Once he got into the surgery and they were prepping him and getting him in there, he used the line again and that time it brought some laughs. What he was communicating was, 'I'm okay.' I thought that was an amazing example of just a short one-liner of a man who wanted to communicate, "It's all going to be okay and I'm all right." And even then he trusted the doctors, even if they weren't Republicans; he wasn't insisting that they had to be. I love that about him.

De Groote: What were Ronald Reagan's greatest mistakes? What would he have done differently if he had the chance to go back and do it over again?

Richards: I think the biggest mistake he made was replacing Jim Baker as Chief of Staff with Don Regan.

Edwards: I might say Anthony Kennedy would be a concern. I think he was less consistent with the judicial philosophy that we saw with so many other court appointments. Not widely divergent, but it failed to solidify the legacy he wanted for that court.

De Groote: Reagan was born 100 years ago. What things will people be saying about Reagan 100 years from now?

Garn: I think one of the most important things was to "Tear down this wall." To symbolize the way he was on national defense, the attitude with the Russians and amazing what he accomplished with the Russians. He changed the whole world.

De Groote: Does he deserve that credit?

Garn: Yes. Yes he does.

De Groote: Why?

Garn: Because we was willing, publicly, to stand up and make those challenges to the Russians. I was there and I was on the (Senate) Defense Appropriations (Committee) and I literally believed his attitude, not just what he said, but his attitude changed that relationship with the Russians so dramatically. You just can't imagine how it made a difference when we visited Russia. How we were greeted as senators traveling over there, after he stood up to them.

De Groote: What kind of attitudes did they have?

Garn: Well it was so anti-American and so suspicious of everything. It really felt uncomfortable when visiting Russia or any of the officials. And I can't describe, night and day, what a change it was.

De Groote: Was he really that indispensable to this issue, the Soviet Union versus the United States?

Garn: Absolutely. Absolutely because of his willingness. A lot of people were critical at the time, "Oh, he's going to cause a war because of being so candid and so direct and so forceful." Well the result was just he opposite and dramatically improved relationships with the Soviet Union.

Edwards: Remember there was so much misinformation about the performance of the Soviet economy. He got better intelligence. It was really grinding to a halt. It was not performing and if we could force their hand on this military spending it would be the end of their ability to compete with us.

Richards: Reagan said, "I don't know whether it's gonna work," speaking of Star Wars, "But neither do the Russians." And he said that's the beauty of it, we'll spend them into bankruptcy trying to find out.

Chamberlain: I hope 100 years from now we'll still be talking about his personal integrity. When Rex went in to interview with President Reagan, just before he was appointed to be the solicitor general of the United States, Rex was so impressed with his persona, his ability to just visit with him as a person. Reagan wanted to know what he was like. He asked him about his family and the one thing that Rex wrote in his journal was that President Reagan asked him about ethics – if he could give him a definition of integrity or ethics. And Rex shared with him his favorite definition of ethics, and that came from Justice Potter Stewart, a past Supreme Court Justice. Justice Stewart said, "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is the right thing to do." And President Reagan loved that. And they shared that and talked about it. Rex was so impressed, as I am, with a man who stood up for what he believed and was not afraid to say what he believed, and yet was able to do it in such a gracious manner.

Bangerter: None of us know what we are going to be talking about a hundred years from now for sure. I think that you look at Lincoln and Lincoln had a rough presidency. It was tough. He had nothing but trouble, nothing but opposition. And yet he was remembered because he stood his ground. In a political system that kind of wanders as our does, those who have been consistent, those who have defended the right, those who have stood for the things that last because none of us know where we are going right now. We are in limbo as a nation. We really need someone who gives the clarion call. The scripture says, 'If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will heed to the battle?' I think we will remember that Reagan didn't give an uncertain sound. He talked directly and spoke the truth and led us in a right direction. It doesn't take us long to get off that direction if we're not careful.

Newell: At the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher was so committed to being there, but she was very weak herself so she had prerecorded the message months before the funeral. And good she did because she couldn't speak at the funeral. She was helped in. Gorbachev was there along with 60 other world leaders. And I told my wife that Ronald Reagan, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay in 1844 on character, that when the man arrived, it altered the face of affairs. And I said, 'Here we had 1,000 people in the Cathedral, 1,000 plus, and it was sad.' It was pretty heavy because the man we're still talking about today, his voice was gone. But when the doors opened and Mrs. Reagan brought the casket in, that casket raised the spirits of that group again. He was an unusual, unusual spirit of the age.

Watch the Reagan Roundtable

To view video of the roundtable tribute to President Ronald Reagan, please visit the following link:

Reagan Roundtable: Video: Utahns remember Ronald Reagan’s lasting influence

Reagan panel participants

Gov. Norman Bangerter: Former Governor of Utah.

Lt. Gov. John Harmer: Reagan's Lt. Governor in Calif.

Sen. Jake Garn: Former U.S. Senator from Utah.

Congressman Jim Hansen: Former U.S. Congressman from Utah.

Dick Richards: Republican National Chairman under Reagan.

Amb. Greg Newell: Asst. Sec. of State and Ambassador to Sweden under Reagan.

Janet Lee Chamberlain: Wife of the late Rex E. Lee who was Solicitor General under Reagan and Mother of Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Ronald Fox: White House Advanceman from Nixon to George Bush.

Paul Edwards: Editorial page editor of the Deseret News.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

Twitter: twitter.com/degroote