February 6 marks the birthday of Ronald Reagan, who 44 years ago won the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, vaulting him on a path to the 1980 nomination and a landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter.
The last presidential candidate to largely unite the country, Reagan defeated Carter 489-49 in the Electoral College and 51%-41% in the popular vote. Four years later, he won 49 states and 59% of the popular vote.
Reagan “rose from the ashes” of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign thanks to his “A Time for Choosing” speech, writes Peggy Noonan in her Reagan biography, When Character Was King. Goldwater could define what conservatism was against, but “Reagan could define it by what it was for: for greater individual authority and freedom, for the right to hold on to more of your wages, for defending democracy against totalitarians.”
First elected California governor in 1966, Reagan carried 57% of voters against incumbent Gov. Pat Brown who complained that Reagan voters were extremists. Instead, Reagan’s support “came from middle-of-the-road voters in both parties,” Noonan writes. “They were tired of high taxes, tired of college upheaval spreading across the university system.”
Reagan called his win, “A rebellion of ordinary people.”
How did Reagan unify so many? For starters, he was nice. That was “considered important for your career in those days,” Noonan writes. He came from humble roots. His father, Jack, was a door-to-door salesman and a blue-collar Democrat. “Ronnie” was an FDR Democrat until his strong opposition to Communism caused him to register as a Republican.
A longtime friend who knew Reagan from early in his acting career said, “The thing about him is he never changed. He was humble. He had no sense of entitlement. It wasn’t about him, ever.”
Reagan didn’t look down on people. “He was not given to conceit, didn’t play with people when he had the chance, didn’t show up places late because he (was) the most important.”
His humility and “common touch” was ingrained by his parents – his father, an Irish Catholic; his mother, an evangelical protestant.
“The biggest sin in their eyes,” Reagan said, “was racial or religious preference. … Any kind of bigotry, they’d really lay into you.”
Under Reagan, the Republican Party transformed from the party of big business to one that supported a strong economy for the benefit of both workers and employers. His relentless optimism and vision for a strong, prosperous America was contagious.
He was a breath of fresh air at a time when elites apologized for America and even ordinary citizens began to doubt. America’s disgraceful exit from Vietnam emboldened communists and tyrants worldwide. The Soviet Union expanded its communist empire, and American leaders feared confrontation. OPEC pinched American consumers, leading to gas lines and rising energy prices. Inflation soared and the economy stagnated. Then in 1979, Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 14 months.
Although a decent man, President Carter was simply in over his head; he wasn’t respected by Russia or Iran and had no plan for America’s return to prosperity.
By contrast, Reagan exuded confidence in America and its people. But his confidence wasn’t cockiness.
He didn’t think certain jobs were beneath him. When first elected president in 1980 and before leaving for Washington, he and a young aide, Dave Fischer, put up Christmas lights at his California home. Secret Service could have done it, but it wasn’t their job. “It was a husband and father’s job to do it for his family,” Fischer recounted.
After being shot by John Hinckley in March 1981, Reagan spilled water on the floor of his hospital bathroom and was found sopping it up because he didn’t want a nurse to have to do it. He also showed kindness in unexpected ways. While praying for others who were shot that day, he also said a prayer for the shooter.
“I can’t ask God to heal (my friends) and at the same time feel hatred for the man who shot us,” he later explained.
Reagan confronted his political opponents with optimism and good humor. Campaigning against Carter 1980, he said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.”
In 1984, opponents sought to make an issue of Reagan’s age, then 73. During a debate with Walter Mondale, 17 years his junior, Reagan was asked about being then “the oldest president in history.” He softly quipped, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.
Unlike most presidents, Reagan’s legacy grows more impressive with time. His tax cuts produced the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history. His peace-through-strength foreign policy led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall – both unthinkable when he took office.
Even President Barack Obama recognized Reagan as a “transformative” President. His quiet tenacity, persistent focus, and humble optimism remain a model even – or especially – today.