Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)
Ronald Reagan, America’s 40th President (1981-1989), proved a transformative leader in Oklahoma, America, and the world. He melded the handsome face and winsome Irish American persona that sparked him to earlier Hollywood movie fame with a comprehensive traditionalist philosophy and the ability to clearly enunciate it, into an epoch-making two-term presidency.
Historian Clarence Carson summarized the hallmarks of that philosophy: “individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise, the family and church as primary institutions, and the importance of civilized order.” It deeply resonated with Oklahomans. Despite his Republican Party’s extreme voter disadvantage, Reagan twice swamped his Democrat opponents in the state’s vote. The lopsided modern GOP majority in Oklahoma is most important because of its representatives’ wide social, economic, and political divergence from its opponents.
Many factors contributed to that sea change, but Reagan and his ability to viscerally connect with Oklahomans’ love of country and their aspirations toward their better angels did so more than any other one person. Unlike any Republican presidential candidate before him, he captured the support of theretofore consistently Democrat members of the “World War II” or “Greatest” generation. And he inspired much of their children’s Baby Boom generation in Oklahoma away from familial Democratic allegiance and into the more conservative Republican Party.
His enduring impact likely began with the biggest political loss of his life—the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford. That night, echoing Puritan John Winthrop and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Reagan delivered, on national television, his famous “City on a Hill” speech. It was a ringing call for America’s return to that city on a hill envisioned by our Puritan and Pilgrim forefathers, a civilization that would shine as a beacon of Christian faith, hope, and charity before all the world.
America wasn’t ready for Reagan then. After four more years of dismal Cold War failures, more busing of school kids from their homes into parts of town they didn’t want to go, more and higher taxes, more government regulations, more inflation, more unemployment, and the Iran hostage crisis, it was.
After finally winning his party’s presidential nomination in 1980, he concluded his acceptance speech:
“Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe free?...I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest. I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?”
Then he bowed his head for a long moment before a worldwide radio and television audience. At last looking up, he declared, “God bless America.”
Reagan won the presidency in a landslide. Then, amidst much opposition, he cut taxes and government regulations like few presidents before him. His historic leadership of the forces of freedom in the long, dark Cold War is explored through several chapters in the second half of OKLAHOMANS 2. Suffice to say here that a decade before the Soviet empire collapsed upon its own rotten corrupted self, he defied the collective intelligentsia of American media, academia, and politics, as often he did.
In separate speeches he told the students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame, and the National Association of Evangelicals:
“The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now begin written.”
This man and his beliefs, as consistent as they were unshakeable, did not emerge out of a vacuum. Their foundation is revealed in his own writings, including this:
“It has always seemed to me that Christ in His own words gave us reason to accept literally the miracle of His birth and resurrection. He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ Indeed, He said so many things that we have a very simple choice: either we believe Him, or we must assume He was the greatest liar who ever lived. If we believe the latter, then we have to ask, could such a charlatan have had the impact on the world for two thousand years that this man has had? We have known other great fakers down through the centuries. Some are even a paragraph in history. None had a lasting effect.”
Barely two months after taking office, an assassin’s bullets cut down bodyguards of Reagan and nearly killed Reagan himself. The new president won over even many of his previous enemies by his stalwart behavior. As a bullet lay lodged less than one inch from his heart, he looked up at the surgeons and cracked, “Please tell me you guys aren’t Democrats.” When his wife Nancy, her eyes welling over with tears, entered the room, he smiled at her and said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Such experiences enduringly bound him to the American people. He won 49 states in his 1984 reelection landslide, including by a better than 2-to-1 margin in still dominantly-Democrat Oklahoma.
After recovering from a wound that without immediate attention would have killed him, he said privately, “Whatever days I have left are His.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.