Today marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. The day is being noted by scads of organizations across the country, and I have heard a few people, especially young people, ask: Why does Reagan merit this sort of attention?
Few other presidents have inspired this sort of retrospective: Roosevelt turned 100 in 1982, Truman in 1984, Eisenhower in 1990, and Johnson in 2008, but they were barely noted despite the enormous impact some of them had upon our country's political history.
And while we will no doubt see reminiscences of Kennedy as we near his 100th birthday, our image of Kennedy is more poignant and romantic. With Reagan, there is something which still inspires a fierce allegiance - and, in some cases, a fierce animus - which seems to render the answer to that question rather obvious: it is because Reagan left an indelible stamp upon our national psyche.
There was a reason Reagan was dubbed "The Great Communicator." While one might cynically chalk up his talents to his background in radio and film, none of his less-than-memorable film portrayals possessed the unmistakable sincerity of his political speeches. Those who disagreed with him were not immune to his graciousness and humor, and his unshakable optimism and exhibited willingness to take action were hard to resist.
But the moniker of "The Great Communicator" was for more than that. He earned it by articulating, in resonant and measured tones, the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of many Americans. He gave voice to their unashamed pride in the United States, to their devoted and sentimental attachment to the ideas and principles upon which the nation was founded. What he communicated was not so much his own vision, but our own highest ideals about what America could, and should, be.
Consequently, Reagan strikes a responsive chord today, but in a different way. His unbounded optimism seems almost misplaced in our strained times, a bitter reminder that the course in which our nation is headed may not be so steady, but instead wends and wavers according to the errors and oversights committed by the previous or present Congress or administration. Notwithstanding Reagan's hopes, our federal government exercises more power than it ever has. Our own futures and that of our children are greatly dependent upon the wisdom and judgment of politicians in Washington, a circumstance diametrically opposed to the America Reagan - and we - once dreamt we could realize.
Perhaps that is why so many Americans feel a need to resurrect Reagan today, to revisit his ideas and try to salvage as much as they can of the vision he articulated and the feelings of national pride he engendered. It is not so much a return to the past as it is a hope for a renewed future that Americans wish to embrace in these challenging times.
Reagan's 100th birthday presents an opportunity to inject new vigor into the organizations that were created, inspired, or nurtured by Reagan, and that are trying to realize his dreams for America. Our own organization, Pacific Legal Foundation, was created directly by Reagan. When governor of California, Reagan asserted that there was a need for a pro-freedom public interest legal foundation that would represent the citizens who supported the common-sense reforms he was trying to implement. Attorneys in his administration heeded his call, and PLF was founded. Reagan's ideals continue to motivate us, and to make us believe that the effort is worth all our energies. And this feeling extends beyond our walls. Even the Republican Party and its candidates continue to be measured - by both supporters and detractors alike - according to the barometer of Ronald Reagan.
So in the end, Americans are willing to ignore Reagan's political missteps or personal imperfections because he is an icon. Like that other American icon he often emulated - the cowboy - Reagan personified the idea of America, a land in which the individual is free to choose his own path and free to achieve his highest aspirations, limited only by his own imagination, his own will, and the strength of his character. Ronald Reagan is the clear, clean, simple, honest, and strong America we yearn to recapture.
Anne Hayes is a spokesperson for Pacific Legal Foundation. Founded in 1973, PLF is the nation's oldest and most successful public interest legal foundation litigating for property rights, free-markets, balanced environmental regulation, and a color-blind society. PLF is a donor-supported nonprofit organization.