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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Reagan Trail

Ronald Reagan's name often came up among the workers in the newsroom of the paper in Moline.  He was getting politically active at the time as he moved toward becoming Governor of California.  But he had history in the area the newspaper covered.

His birthplace was Tampico, Ill., which was just a few miles from Prophetstown where the newspaper maintained an office.  A struggling rural town, Tampico, as is the case with small towns, was trying to promote itself by identifying with people of some fame it could claim as residents in its history.  Reagan's name came up often in news from the Tampico area, as the town associated itself with a movie star.  Reagan had not yet gained fame in politics.

His family had lived in many towns in northern Illinois--Chicago, Galesburg, Monmouth, and Dixon, where he went to high school and graduated.  Many places claimed him as a native son.  

He was also known among the news media in the Quad-Cities area of Illinois and Iowa.  His first job out of college during the depths of the Depression was as a sports announcer at radio station WOC in Davenport, Iowa.  Some of the old-timers in the Quad-Cities news community remembered him.  After a year, he moved to a sister station in Des Moines, WHO, where he made a name for himself as a  sportscaster by announcing Cubs games off  the news wire.  The old-timers remembered him as a talented young man on the rise.

However, in our newsroom, there was a discordant note when Reagan's name came up.  One of our city beat reporters would burst into sputtering denouncements at the mention of the Reagan name.  I was never certain of the reason for the man's intense dislike of Reagan, but it had something to do with Reagan's testimony before the House Un-American Activities committee as president of the Screen Actors Guild during the McCarthy years. The reporter felt that Reagan had  betrayed and damaged some otherwise bright and talented people, and I had the impression the reporter was close to some people who were hurt during that episode.  I lost track of that reporter, but often wondered what his mental state was when Reagan became president.

Over the years, the aspect of Reagan that struck news reporters was that the image created of Reagan did not match the facts.  He did reduce the deficit in California when he became governor, but he did so with a sharp increase in taxes.  Sometimes when he told anecdotes about his past, they came from movie scripts, not the actual history of his life.  He was an extremely shrewd and adept politician who often departed from his claimed ideology to make political compromises.  Reporters called him the Teflon President, because negative matters he was associated with such as the Iran Contra business  did not stick on him.  That image of the affable and pleasant man always triumphed over the reality of matters he was involved in.  As an actor, he knew how to project an attitude.  So, he is remembered more for the role he played, not the work he did as president.

I disagreed with some of his policies.  As a professor in the lowest paid faculty in the 50 states, I was among those who were severely damaged by his revision of the tax code.  Our low pay was stretched by  deductions for our home offices, on the interest we paid on credit cards and other loans, and on excluding grants we obtained to participate in research seminars from income tax liability.  These deductions were abolished and our tax liabilities soared.  At the same time, we were in the Reagan recession and a time of retrenchment with no pay raises, and the cost of health care was beginning its steep ascent.  Many professors in the lower paying systems took very serious financial setbacks from which they never really recovered.  But they were a small minority, like the air traffic controllers, and the general public liked to believe they got what they deserved.  His approval ratings did sink and flutter around 40 percent many times during his presidency, reflecting that people were noticing that their earnings were stagnating in a trend that began with the Reagan years and continues to the present time.  Still, while people were beginning to notice a decline in their personal circumstances, they did not connect it to the polices of that smiling, affable, optimistic president.   His presidency signaled the triumph of image over substance.  And most citizens understood that Ronald Reagan was not the controller of the direction the nation took; he was the cheerleader.

But he was our president, and his affability and political savvy did work on both the national and international fronts.

He died June 5, 2004, during which time the Fort Sisseton Historical Festival was being held.  I was a Civil War re-enactor then, and the assembled infantry and cavalry units held a formation on the parade ground while we stood at present arms during a cannon salute to lower the flag to half staff.

We honored a fallen commander in chief.  And standing there with musket raised in salute, I could not help but think of the trail he had followed through those many towns in northern Illinois.  He was, after all, one of us.

Here is a significant view of the Reagan legacy

Would America Have Been Better Off Without a Reagan Presidency? 

His simple-mindedness had a touch of genius to it.

HBO documentary explores Reagan's myths, mysteries

1 comment:

David Newquist said...

Here is a blog with photographs from John Ruberry of Illinois who drove across Illinois on snowy highways for the Reagan birthday observance in Tampico.

John Ruberry has sent you a link to a blog:

Hello...Read and see how Tampico looks now. John

Blog: Marathon Pundit
Post: Report from Tampico, Illinois on Reagan's 100th birthday

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States