- - Thursday, May 5, 2016


Every year since 1914 presidents have issued a proclamation declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The only exception was Franklin D. Roosevelt who in 1935 opted instead for a short White House statement. To be sure, most of the proclamations are similar and ordinary — except those of Ronald Reagan during his two terms in office.

No doubt, Mr. Reagan’s mother, Nelle, had an enormous influence on the future president because she was, in effect, the sole parent as a result of his alcoholic father. And that influence, as Mr. Reagan pointed out in his 1990 autobiography, “An American Life,” was undergirded in religion. “From my mother,” he wrote, “I learned the value of prayer, how to have dreams and believe I could make them come true.”

Not only are Mr. Reagan’s annual declarations unique in terms of their religious references, but on Saturday, May 7, before Mother’s Day in 1983, the president devoted his entire weekly radio broadcast to mothers on their most special day. The first major sentence in that address makes the listener aware that this is no run-of-the-mill tribute, with its interpretation of basic material and spiritual sustenance:

“In our families, and often from our mothers, we first learn about values and eating and the difference between right and wrong. Those of us blessed with loving families draw our confidence from them and the strength we need to face the world. We also first learn at home, and, again, often from our mothers, about the God who will guide us through life.”

Conceding that because American history has largely been written by men, Mr. Reagan stressed that mothers have been given short shrift, especially in terms of their role in the settlement of the nation. “But the truth is the Wild West could never have been tamed, the vast prairies never plowed, nor God and learning brought to the corners of our continent without the strength, bravery, and influence of our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and the women who came before them.”

In a succinct yet moving two-sentence paragraph, Mr. Reagan indicated that mothers, well, they could do anything — and they actually did everything: “Living through blizzards, plagues, prairie fires, and floods, these women made homes and started families, organized churches and built schools. They served as teachers, field hands, physicians, and the center of the family.”

And although the lives of contemporary mothers, he noted, are far removed from early life on the frontier, government should not hinder mothers from fulfilling responsibilities to their families. Its role must be both limited and obvious, namely, to “restore the family to its rightful place in our society, combat the inflation that stole from family budgets, expand economic opportunity through a renewed economy and hasten the return of values and principles that made America both great and good.”

In sum, progress in the nation and for mothers and their families isn’t a complicated issue, according to Reagan. Rather, “it’s the product of our reliance again on good old-fashioned common sense, renewed belief in ourselves, and faith in God.”

Mr. Reagan concluded his radio address by referencing his mother’s “worn brown Bible” used by him in his oath of office, replete with the numerous marks made “to instruct her two young sons.” And to that book, the president emphasized, “I look to it still.”

In his last Mother’s Day proclamation in 1988 before leaving office, Reagan left perhaps his most significant legacy in terms of describing the inestimable fullness of motherhood:

“Maternal love is the first tangible bond any human being knows. It is a tie at once physical, emotional, psychological, and mystical … Generation after generation has measured love by the work and wonder of motherhood. For these gifts, ever ancient and ever new, we cannot pause too often to give thanks to mothers …’What possible comparison was there,’ a great saint wrote of his mother, ‘between the honor I showed her and the service she had rendered me?’

“Mother’s Day affords us an opportunity to meet one of life’s happiest duties.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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