Community Comment

Reagan rose from humble start
to global prominence

Special to the Courier & Press

Friday June 11, 2004


Throughout history, great leaders of nations and civilizations seem to emerge from notably different backgrounds. Some are blessed with great family wealth, bestowed titles and vast land holdings, while others rise to positions of prominence from very humble origins.

Among the constellation of world leaders to emerged during the 20th century, for many none will be more fondly remembered than President Ronald Wilson Reagan. Etched in our collective memories as a handsome figure with his beautiful wife, Nancy at his side, his words revealed an affable man of perpetual optimism and remarkable accomplishments. But perhaps the most important aspect of his undiminished stature as one of our greatest presidents is that he will forever be remembered as a man of the people.

Emerging from a life of humble origins in Dixon, Ill., he was a the son of a devoutly Christian mother and an alcoholic father who struggled to support his wife and two children. The young athlete and summer lifeguard at Lowell Park beach on Rock River, "Dutch" Reagan was determined to further his education and attended Eureka College, in central Illinois.

After college, he become a successful sports radio broadcaster in Chicago, and later an actor performing in 53 motion pictures from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. From this experience he rose through the ranks of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood and served for six, two-year terms as the president of the union.

During the mid-1950s, he was hired as a national public relations spokesperson for General Electric, appearing every week for eight years on General Electric Theater. It was in this role that Reagan first acquired national prominence and recognition, as he was frequently asked to travel across the country as a "goodwill ambassador from the home office" to appear at speaking engagements among the 139 GE plants across the country.

It was also during this period in the late 1950s that he underwent the political transformation from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. In that role, he campaigned actively for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, the year he genuinely started building a national constituency among both Republican and conservative activists.

With a gimbaled eye trained on California’s capital of Sacramento, and two-term incumbent Governor Pat Brown -- in 1966, public citizen Reagan soon became Gov. Reagan for two terms and the rest of the bittersweet political story has been endlessly reported. Among presidents of recent memory, perhaps only John Kennedy can be recalled to have inspired as much hope and enthusiasm among a generally passive and reticent American public. Rhetorically, their writings reflect a similar optimism and a willingness to change the world by profound dimensions. Unfortunately, as Kennedy’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, his counterpart over 25 years later was able to actually witness a restoration of domestic economic prosperity, a triumph over the imperial aspirations of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin wall.

Reagan’s rhetorical image of "a shining city on the Hill," to describe the unique national character of the United States will remain indelibly etched in the American political lexicon.

It was recently reported that after surviving the assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, President Reagan firmly believed that his presidential service was by Divine appointment -- that God had extended his life for some grand purpose. This profession of faith is underscored by his own description his first inauguration in 1981 when Chief Justice Earl Warren held his mother’s Bible open to II Chronicles 7:14 which reads "If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

On that fateful day when a stunned nation looked on while President Reagan laid on a gurney in an emergency room at George Washington University Hospital suffering from a bullet wound to the chest, a responding attending surgeon said "today Mr. President, we’re all Republicans."

Today, as we fondly recall the charming persona, the resonant voice and the profound political accomplishments of our timeless, beloved leader, once again for a brief season, we’re all Republicans.

David Coker of Evansville served in the Reagan Administration as a special assistant in the Office of Public Communications of the Small Business Administration in 1986. His e-mail address is oldcars55@