Fourteen years ago Tuesday, June 4, 2018, former President Ronald Wilson Reagan died at the age of 93 in his Bel Air home, officially of pneumonia. He had battled that scary and terrifying Alzheimer’s disease for a decade, which was the real cause of his death.
When his body was transported to Washington, D.C., to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, within a day and a half over 100,000 people visited and paid their respects. The state funeral two days later was a somber but unifying event. It was clear the American people loved him. “God bless you, Nancy,” yelled many from the crowd as the new widow walked beside her husband’s casket.
The Reagan funeral lasted a week, most of it was televised, and millions watched, both celebrating his legacy and grieving his loss. They knew what Reagan meant to America, Americans, and the world.
Ronald Reagan was a man of many things. He had that charm of a Midwesterner. He had the looks of an actor. He had the wit of a natural comedian. He had the enduring principles of his faith and philosophy.
But he also had the loyalty of a Republican — ironic, considering his once self-described hemophiliac love for FDR and all things liberal in the 1940s and 1950s. But by the early 1960s, he was a Republican Party man.
This shift to the Right and to the GOP all started in 1964 with presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Few people in history are seen as redefining what it means to be Republican. Abraham Lincoln was one; Reagan himself another. Barry Goldwater was a third.
On Oct. 27, 1964, Reagan, at the time relatively unknown, politically, was launched into national politics through a 30-minute speech. “A Time for Choosing,” it was titled.
“I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this,” he opened. And Goldwater was a controversial candidate. A small-government Arizona senator during the civil rights movement brought accusations of racism and segregationist sympathies.
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To boot, Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act earlier that year, arguing it was anti-free business and would set government power over individuals. Effective pro-Lyndon Johnson ads also painted Goldwater as a warmonger, a man whose itchy finger was always on the nuclear button, ready to push it at a moment’s notice at the sight of any communist threat. It was all so unfair and untrue. Goldwater, the civil libertarian, believed passionately in human rights. So did Reagan.
And Reagan supported Goldwater. Not because he was falsely accused of racism or being trigger-happy, but because, dishonest propaganda aside, Goldwater encompassed what it meant to be a conservative: individual rights against big government bureaucracy and oppression, both at home and abroad.
When Goldwater lost, Reagan still stuck by his side. In fact, the very speech that launched him in conservative circles allowed him to run successfully for the governorship of California in 1966, a very liberal state. When moderate Republicans New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney fled the Arizonan, both Richard Nixon and Reagan stood by him. They were good party men.
Fast-forward a decade, and the GOP was having as much trouble as any political party ever had. By 1974, President Richard Nixon, who had recently won a landslide of an election in 1972, resigned in disgrace. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, had previously resigned, also in disgrace, due to a bribery scandal.
Reagan stuck by them as well. A year and a couple of months before Nixon resigned, in April 1973, during the heat of Watergate, Reagan gave the president a call: “This too shall pass,” Reagan assured Nixon.
Earlier that day, Nixon addressed the nation, announcing the resignation of H.R. Halderman and John Ehrlichman, two key aides. “You thought it was the right speech, did you?” Nixon asked Reagan, almost like how a child would seek reassurance from a parent.
“I did, very much so, yes,” Reagan replied. But Nixon’s approval rating was sharply declining and would be unrecoverable.
Things came to a head in 1976 — Reagan’s loyalty to the GOP was broken by its appointed leader. President Gerald Ford, the only chief executive not to have been elected to the position, ran a tight and taut primary race against challenger Reagan.
Reagan opposed much of Ford’s presidency, but what sent him around the bend was Ford’s refusal to meet with famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the advice of neocon Henry Kissinger, a Reagan bête noire, to placate the Kremlin. Certainly the constant personal attacks on Reagan emanating from the Ford White House also compelled him to challenge Ford in the 1976 GOP primaries.
Many issues hit the airways during the 1976 presidential election: détente, the economy, what it means to be a Republican. And a conservative. And all the pieces fell into place. Though Reagan narrowly lost the 1976 nomination in one of the closest such races ever, that did not mean he lost the war.
He wasn’t going to go away. Through the next four years, Reagan placed himself in front of the news, never moving away from public opinion. By 1980, he successfully ran for president, and he won 44 of 50 states with over 50 percent of the popular vote against the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter.
If he had betrayed Goldwater, like so many others, would we today be revering a President Reagan? George Will put it aptly: Those who “voted for [Goldwater] in 1964 believe he won. It just took 16 years to count the votes.”
No one can or should say with certainty whether Reagan would have supported President Donald Trump. Certainly Trump’s adherence to Reagan’s own beliefs on government, abortion and foreign policy would have been pleasing to the Gipper.
Maybe in private, Reagan would have shaken his head over the tweets and the attacks on his political opponents. But Reagan might also have understood, as he’d borne the brunt of vicious and unfounded attacks on himself and his administration and noted often in his diaries of these attacks.
After Reagan’s crushing defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984, he wrote in his diaries that the media were trying to say it wasn’t really a landslide. “Or should I say a mandate?” he asked, tongue in cheek.
Certainly Trump’s adherence to Reagan’s own beliefs on government, abortion and foreign policy would have been pleasing to the Gipper.
Reagan had just won 49 out of 50 states and had beaten Mondale by 17 million votes, 59 percent to 40 percent.
It is curious that the liberal Establishment hates Republicans in real time — Ike, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes. But then they all of a sudden fall in love with them after they leave office or die — to use them as a blunt instrument to attack the current Republican. It is a familiar pattern. Damning with faint Republicanism, indeed.
Presentism — the fallacy of applying past mores and standards to current times — is always risky and to be avoided. It’s best to judge Reagan’s many successes and failures, and best to judge Trump’s successes and failures on their own merits. And in their own time.
Reagan tuned out the false prophets and naysayers. He shrugged off liberal attacks and critics. “It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant,” he once said. “It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”
Trump should do likewise, too.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.” Scott Mauer is a research assistant for Craig Shirley.
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