Reagan, flawed and complex, boosted America’s morale

In my senior year of high school, when I turned 18, I registered
to vote as a Republican. Thanks mainly to one man, about a year
later I re-registered as a non-party voter.
In my senior year of high school, when I turned 18, I registered to vote as a Republican. Thanks mainly to one man, about a year later I re-registered as a non-party voter.

President Ronald Reagan was that one man who helped me decide I no longer wanted to be a Republican.

As simple a personality as he often portrayed himself in public, Reagan was a remarkably complex individual.

Historians will regard him as a charismatic leader with a few strong convictions that shaped his decisions and changed the world.

Reagan’s eight years serving 20 million Californians as state governor helped prepare him for the White House and his role on the stage of world politics.

He contributed much for the Golden State during those turbulent years between 1967 and 1974.

As governor, he learned the importance of taking his case to the people. He would frequently speak on the radio, addressing issues important to California’s residents. Reagan borrowed this political technique from FDR’s “Fireside Chats” during the Great Depression years, and later refined it during his own years in the White House.

In some ways, Reagan as governor was more progressive than he’s often given credit for.

Shortly after starting his first term, Governor Reagan visited African-Americans in the Watts district of Los Angeles and other neighborhoods throughout the state.

In conversations with the residents, he soon saw the glaring prejudice against hiring blacks for state government positions. He learned black people could only get jobs as janitors and other low-level positions.

In order to achieve more equality, Reagan changed the testing and job evaluation process. He also appointed more blacks to important executive and policy-making positions than all previous California governors combined.

In his second term as governor, he also revitalized the state’s welfare programs.

Instead of simply giving handouts that made the poor dependent on the state, Reagan initiated a plan to provide able-bodied welfare recipients with job training and job placement.

This helped about 67,000 Californians build independence in their lives. Many of them wrote Reagan to thank him for helping them gain a renewed self-respect with their jobs.

In sharp contrast to his political decisions as U.S. President, Governor Reagan cut back on spending in California while at the same time raising taxes. He did this to put the state’s deficit finance in order.

This eventually achieved a surplus of $100 million which he returned to taxpayers. The legacy of his stewardship of California is that he made our state’s government less costly, smaller and more business-like.

But it’s for his presidency and not his governing of California that the American nation will remember Ronald Reagan.

And here is where his complexity as a person truly comes into the spotlight of history.

He was a president who led with a gracious and optimistic demeanor. With the famous movie star grin and twinkle in his eyes, he gave Americans a hopeful message: there is no problem we cannot solve so long as we simply have faith in the future.

We Americans believed that message because he truly believed it himself.

But despite the kind uncle image he acted out, Reagan was a deeply flawed man. It showed in his troubled family life and in his political decisions during times of crisis.

He was deeply devoted to his wife Nancy, but unfortunately did not control the First Lady’s megalomaniacal involvement in handling his staff. The American public felt astonished when the news came out Nancy used advice from an astrologer for Reagan’s major political decisions.

And when pitching his Strategic Defense Initiative plan to the American public, President Reagan seemed truly lost in outer space.

His former staff members later revealed Reagan really thought his “Star Wars” program was up and running, even though none of the complex system was even on blueprints.

Reagan had some other strange notions. He believed we could make the world safer by building up our stock of nuclear weapons and increasing our aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union.

And his “Reaganomics” plan of balancing the budget by cutting taxes and increasing military spending nearly tripled our federal deficit.

He’s credited by admirers for ending the Cold War, but political scientists debate how significant his role was in this achievement.

The cancer of communism had already hollowed the U.S.S.R., and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev played an equal – or perhaps greater – role in reducing hostilities between the two superpowers.

It was Reagan’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal that sparked my decision to leave the Republican Party.

Along with the rest of the country, I felt betrayed by his denial of the obvious.

His own diary showed he was involved in the sale of missiles to Iran to ransom U.S. hostages in Lebanon. And then he had used the money illegally to arm Contra fighters in Nicaragua.

Some historians think Reagan deceived himself into believing he had not been involved in the sordid affair.

Children of alcoholics often learn to psychologically deny unpleasant facts.

Recently watching clips of his televised speech in which he told the nation the truth about the scandal, I felt a growing respect for the courage it took to admit, “No excuses. It was a mistake.”

The United States will pay its final respects to Ronald Reagan today with a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral.

Despite his flaws as a man and a leader, he will be remembered for boosting America’s morale through sharing his values of self-reliance, individualism and true grit.

Martin Cheek is the author of ‘The Silicon Valley Handbook.’