In October of 1965, Ronald Reagan came to speak at the University of California in Los Angeles. I was a senior, and it was a depressing time to be a College Republican (CR). Barry Goldwater had been thrashed the previous year, and my professors were so left wing that I took one to court because of her biased grading.
The UCLA Student Union was packed. There was a buzz that Mr. Reagan was considering running for governor against the entrenched Democrat, Pat Brown. My buddy and fellow CR Bill Anthony sat expectantly in the audience. As Mr. Reagan began to speak, he filled the room with an energy that was both exciting and soothing, and the thousand-plus students were entranced.
Then he caught us by surprise. He said the conventional political spectrum of left versus right made no sense and he rejected it. “Rather than communists and Marxists on the extreme ‘left’ and Nazis and fascists on the extreme ‘right,’ I think the political spectrum should be ‘up’ and ‘down’ — up toward individual freedom and down toward control of the individual by the state,” he explained.
“The extreme up would be anarchy, no government at all,” he continued, “while the extreme down, at the bottom of the spectrum, would be all forms of totalitarianism: both fascism and communism, Nazism and Marxism, which together in common advocate the abolishment of individual freedom. On this spectrum, I place myself on the up side, not an anarchist, but as an advocate of individual liberty in accordance with a constitutional democracy and rule of law.”
I turned to Bill and whispered, “That settles that.”
“Settles what?” he whispered back.
“That’s my man,” I answered. “I’ve always dreamed of someone publicly saying just that.”
When I was home over the weekend a few days later, I asked my father, “Dad, you know Ronald Reagan, don’t you?” My father, Jackson Wheeler, was a well-known television producer and personality in Los Angeles and knew most people in Hollywood.
“Sure,” he replied. “Why?”
“Because he gave the most amazing speech at UCLA, and it really affected me. I was wondering if I could meet him.”
I had never made such a request before, and my father knew it. So he looked up Mr. Reagan’s number in his address book and called it.
“Ron? This is Jackson Wheeler. My son is a senior at UCLA and heard your speech — he wants to meet you.” When he put down the phone, Dad said, “Ron says to come on over.”
So we drove from Glendale to Pacific Palisades and Ronald Reagan’s home. He greeted us at the door. He was home alone; Nancy wasn’t there. We went to his den, where he sat down in an easy chair, I on a bar stool, with Dad sitting nearby. We talked, and I can’t remember what he said. But when he finished, he raised his hands palms up above the arms of his chair, shrugged his shoulders and said, “And that’s the way I feel.”
I replied, “That’s exactly the way I feel, too.” Then I found myself saying, “Mr. Reagan, I have never worked in a political campaign before, save for walking precincts for Barry Goldwater last year. But I believe in you — so if you decide to run for governor of California, I will do anything I can to help.”
I could not believe what I had just said. I had spent the two previous summers setting up a business in South Vietnam. I was graduating in January and had to hurry back to Saigon. It was lunacy for me to offer to postpone that. Yet something told me I had to.
A little while later I got a call from a fellow named Bill Roberts. He and his partner Stu Spencer had been hired, he said, by Ronald Reagan to manage his campaign for governor — and he wanted to know if I would consider being state chairman of Youth For Reagan. I said yes.
All during the spring of 1966, I traveled across California with Mr. Reagan — a lot by car because he hated to fly in any plane that didn’t have at least four engines. I wish I had the capacity to describe adequately what it was like being in Ronald Reagan’s presence. I had met, because of my dad, dozens of Hollywood celebrities from Bob Hope to Frank Sinatra to Red Skelton to ? it’s a long list. I had met President Eisenhower in the White House. They were very special people. But Ronald Reagan had a magic that was unique to him alone.
There was a depth of character to his charisma that seemed bottomless. There was a solidity of integrity and humanity behind the dazzling charm that was matchless. You loved Ronald Reagan for his ideals and his complete fearlessness in advocating them — and you loved Ronald Reagan for the man, the human being, he was.
Ronald Reagan was the single greatest American — American, not just American president — of the 20th century. More than any other, he embodied the moral ideal personified by Aristotle as the man of megalopsychia, the “great-souled man.”
The “great-souled man” had a character of such undiluted integrity,inspirationand achievement in the real world that his life expressed, for Aristotle, the kalon, moral beauty. Ronald Reagan was a morally beautiful human being.
Five years ago, in February 1999, I wrote the following tribute to this extraordinary man.
“This coming Sunday, Feb. 6, will be the 88th birthday of the greatest president of the 20th century: Ronald Reagan. That Reagan’s achievements exceed those of any president since Washington and Jefferson will unquestionably be the judgment of future historians.
“They will recognize that America was at the bottom of the barrel by 1980, after Vietnam, Watergate and Jimmy Carter. We were losing the Cold War. The Soviets had added 14 countries to their empire in the previous decade, were targeting Mexico via Castro and the Sandinistas (their embassy in Mexico City was the largest Soviet embassy in the world), while our hostages were helplessly imprisoned in Iran.
“Defeatism and declinism dominated American thinking. Stagflation, the Rust Belt, 21 percent interest rates, 27 percent inflation, 11 percent unemployment and stock prices falling through the basement. Carter complained of a ‘malaise’ in America, never comprehending that depressed and dejected Americans elected a pathetic little nebbish like him as an expression of malaise, as a projection of their crushed self-image.
“Ronald Reagan changed all that. He gave Americans their pride and confidence in their country back to them. He crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Starting in 1982, the Reagan Boom is now in its 18th year — with only a short eight-month shallow interregnum caused by the oil-price spike following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
“At the same time he was saving the U.S. economy, Reagan was saving world freedom. He initiated a comprehensive strategy to maximize the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, America’s complete victory in the Cold War and her emerging as the world’s sole uncontested superpower.
“And on top of all of that, he was an extraordinarily loveable, likeable, good and decent human being, a man whom Aristotle would have said possessed a ‘great soul.’ Take the time this Sunday to reflect on the achievements of Ronald Reagan, on how much you and all Americans owe him a debt of thankfulness and gratitude.
“America was truly blessed to have a man such as him to come to her rescue and to raise her from despairing depths to the pinnacle of historic success we all stand upon today.”
Yet in the midst of the outpouring of eulogies and tributes in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s passing this day of June 5, 2004, we must recall that during his presidency, the liberals hated and fought his every effort to win the Cold War, from support of the Contras to the Strategic Defense Initiative to calling him a warmonger for demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The liberals’ drumbeat of pessimism and hopeless defeatism was constant, their rage at Ronald Reagan’s determination to stand up to the Soviets unending, their insulting vituperation towards his abilities and intelligence unhinged. Reagan-hatred was the moral disease of the liberals in the 1980s — just as Bush-hatred is the moral disease of liberals today.
President Bush’s determination to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and through it to the entire Muslim Middle East is the equal to Ronald Reagan’s determination to bring freedom and democracy to the oppressed people of the Soviet Empire. Both are visions of Olympian heroism. Such visions, such moral courage, terrify liberals, embarrassed as they are of being American and in a continual state of apology for their and their country’s existence.
“Because of Ronald Reagan’s leadership,” Mr. Bush said today, “the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny.” Because of Muslim terrorism, the world once again is living in an era of fear and tyranny — and because of George Bush’s leadership, that era will also be laid to rest, in spite of liberal moral cowardice.
During that spring of 1966, the kids fresh out of or still in high school and college that were in Youth For Reagan — we called ourselves “The Brown-is-Out-to-Lunch Bunch” — were bonded by our adoration for Ronald Reagan. Almost 40 years later, that bond remains.
Shawn Steel was my state high school chairman. Today, he is the immediate past chairman of the California Republican Party and was the instigator of the Gray Davis recall — it is thanks to Shawn that Arnold Schwarzenegger is California’sgovernor.Dana Rohrabacher was my Los Angeles County high school chairman. Dana, like several others in Youth For Reagan, went to the Reagan White House, where the two of us crafted the Reagan Doctrine. Since 1988, Dana has been a prominent California congressman. Ed Royce was my Burbank Youth For Reagan chairman and is now also in Congress. Arnie Steinburg and Dennis Turner were our resident genius strategists — Arnie becoming California Republicans’ most prominent campaign strategist, and you know Dennis as the author of: To The Point’s Dennis The Wizard column. Bill Anthony was our social director — boy, did we have some great parties! — and is today director of external relations for the Department of Homeland Security.
All of us in Youth For Reagan will be gathering in reunion shortly at President Reagan’s burial service. It will be a celebration. A celebration of the unsurpassed contribution Ronald Reagan made to America and of the man we all loved and admired above any other.
How many experiences are there in one’s life that, 40 years later, those who shared it remain bonded friends? That was the ineradicable impact Ronald Reagan had on our lives personally. Mr. Reagan had the same impact on America. It is ineradicable and it will be felt for generations to come. He was fond of declaring that America’s best days are not in her past, but in her future. It is thanks to him that we can be sure his prediction will come true.
God bless America and God bless Ronald Reagan.
Jack Wheeler is publisher of To The Point, an online geopolitical analysis service at www.tothepointnews.com.