Twenty-two years after he left office and nearly seven years after his death, Ronald Reagan is no dimming historical figure. He is an extraordinary galvanizing force in the political life of this state and the nation, posthumously leading the conservative movement with the clarity of his ideas about the proper role and size of government.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth today, Reagan stands tall for what he stood for, even as he inspires debate about how closely his actions followed his words.
Reagan — who took 57.9 and 66.3 percent of the vote in Kansas, respectively, in 1980 and 1984 — has no memorial or building to honor him in the state, according to Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.
But Gov. Sam Brownback has called Reagan a personal hero and called himself a “full-scale Ronald Reagan conservative.” Indeed, few of Brownback’s brethren among the state’s GOP would claim to be other than a Reaganite.
Reagan’s “legacy of conviction, optimism and building the American dream for ourselves and our children,” as described in the County Commission’s unusual proclamation last week honoring the centennial, clearly has taken on a life of its own in public consciousness and debate, inspiring disciples too young to remember him but now old enough to embrace and employ his principles in public life.
Though the world and the nation’s challenges seem much changed since the ’80s, many of Reagan’s words ring as true as ever. The demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square embody his declaration that “freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few, but the universal right of all God’s children.” The tea party movement has taken up his cry “to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”
If Reagan’s record on taxes, spending, deficits, immigration, abortion and foreign policy can’t stand up to the mythology, it hardly seems to matter anymore to most people. Nor does it bother many Republicans that their hero, by today’s standards, could be considered a RINO, Republican in name only, on some issues.
He articulated the principles of the party and, for many independents as well as Republicans, buoyed the nation’s sense of pride and optimism in ways that remain unmatched by his GOP imitators and White House successors.
Even those who have little use for his politics increasingly admire him for his easy leadership. Reagan claimed what had become an impossible job and found the presidency a uniquely perfect fit. Eight years later, he left office with a 60 percent-plus approval rating.
If the fuss accorded Reagan on his 100th birthday seems to deny the reality of his record, it also speaks to people’s yearning to feel good about their nation and leaders.