Former President Reagan died today at age 93.
I was in high school when Ronald Reagan was shot shortly after being elected president. It was one of those startling moments that shake you out of your day-to-day existence and force you to pay attention to the rest of the world. I remember the detailed diagrams in TIME magazine showing the path and trajectory of each bullet and where all the wounded people - Reagan, James Brady, the Secret Service agent and the police officer - were all standing. I remember thinking that Reagan could still die even though he survived the initial shooting and wondering what that would mean.
My family was pretty much apolitical when I was growing up. I used to tell my parents who they should vote for before I was old enough to vote myself. (I don't know if they actually took my advice.) In 1980, I told them to vote for Jimmy Carter, probably because he was the incumbent who I was familiar with. But by 1984, the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in, I had been completely won over by Reagan. I had a picture of Reagan and campaign bumper stickers in my dorm room at Texas A&M. I used to clip out cartoons that lauded Reagan and lampooned poor Walter Mondale. I couldn't understand why anybody would vote for Mondale over Reagan.
The landslide that year for Reagan meant I was pretty much in tune with the rest of the country. But during his second term a number of things happened that gave me second thoughts. I read a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. I became facinated by the Kennedy assassination conspiracy and became convinced that a shadowy right-wing cabal had gotten away with the murder of the century. And then the Iran-Contra scandal hit the news. At first I was willing to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt. I still liked Reagan and hadn't shifted my allegiance at that point. But I remember him coming on television shortly after the news of the scandal first broke and explaining that the arms that had been shipped to Iran were just a tiny shipment that could all fit on one airplane. It seemed reasonable to me, no big deal, no harm done. But then I found out that was not really the case. The arms sent to Iran were much more substantial than what Reagan had claimed. Was he lying? Was he misinformed? Either way my confidence in Reagan was shattered and I began to have a lot of second thoughts about my politics.
By 1988, I had done a complete turnaround and was supporting Dukakis for president (after voting for Jesse Jackson in the primary).
However, I still liked Reagan. He was just hard to dislike. He was so full of optimism and pride in America that he had become an icon for our country, not just for conservatives, but for everyone. Today I think Reagan was a great leader for our country who, unfortunately had some wrong-headed ideas that took us in bad directions, but for the most part his impact on the country was positive. He did leave us with a huge national debt, but he also helped to make the country stronger - in spirit if not materially.
By direct contrast, George W. Bush has made our country weaker. He has presided over a deep recession and a long jobless recovery and he has led us into a tar pit in the Middle East that has aggravated our friends and enemies alike. In many ways, Bush is the Republican version of Jimmy Carter. What the Democrats need - and I'm hoping John Kerry can be - is a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan. We need to restore our faith and pride in our country and repair our tarnished image around the globe. Rather than an aggressor nation that bullys smaller countries and conducts pre-emptive invasions, and then abuses foreign prisoners, we should be the "good guys" who are there to help and lead through example. If the Democrats can take those positive aspects of Reagan and apply them to good government policies, I think they will retake the White House for the next eight years.