Over the past few weeks, I’ve read or heard quite a few accounts from people who were once close to President Reagan. His adoring wife, his humbled vice president, grateful families of soldiers, various heads of various countries; all waxed poetic about the eloquence of the man and all he was to them, the country, to the world, his name etched in the edifice of time.
You’ve likely all heard that he restored the national pride and brought our country back through the toughest of times when morale was at an all time low.
It is that very notion that I best recall when remembering Ronald Reagan; his unwavering, blind optimism. It changed the way I thought for the rest of my life.
With a 10-year Alzheimer hiatus preceding his death, Ronald Reagan slipped beneath the public radar for a while. At least enough to escape the memories of those who are in their 20s and 30s today.
We all comment on the attitudes of today’s troubled and uncommitted teens -– maybe it’s because they missed that very 1980s Renaissance. Maybe they, now, like we, then, have forgotten how to indulge the potential instead of constantly pointing out what’s missing.
You see Ronald Reagan saw our country for what it could be again, not for the weak player it had become. His vision would not be tainted. As a young man I was in route to that kind of “half-empty glass” negativity; but for the grace of Ronald Reagan, there would have gone I.
It was 1979 and I was fresh out of high school and had planned to take a month’s vacation at this up and coming city called Branson, Missouri, with a couple of buddies.
One had an uncle who was rehabbing a camp grounds into a resort in this area and he offered us food and lodging if we put in a month’s labor cutting trees, clearing land, building fishing docks, etc. We were energized by the challenge and packed up my friend’s 1966 Plymouth Barracuda and headed to the Ozarks.
On that fateful journey we were haunted by the idea that we might not make it from gas station to gas station because if we ran out of fuel and ran into long consumer lines at the next station, we might get shut out and stranded; a very real part of 1979.
We had three gallons of gas (safely?) packed with the luggage just in case and made an agreement that whoever was driving would pull in for a fill-up if we were anywhere near a half a tank of gas.
Our thought was if we considered half a tank the same as empty it would ensure we didn’t run out. Though we waited in line more than once, we were never shut out on that trip but I clearly remember sitting in one of those lines and looking at all of these stressed out, overheated drivers and thinking, “This is an illusion. We live in the most powerful country in the world and we are reduced to this? This can’t be right.” Never in my short life had the glass looked more half empty.
As that summer passed and my newly “draft registered” peers and I left for college, I recall thinking that maybe staying home and continuing to make pizzas and coach Little League had more security in it than getting a degree.
Undaunted, I headed off to school and shortly thereafter witnessed the end of a long hostage crisis, hand in hand with the ushering in of our new president, Ronald Reagan.
I’ll never forget watching the swearing-in ceremony. There was something about that look on his face, that confidence in his gait, that air of optimism that was absolutely intoxicating. Nancy’s adoring gaze was too real to discount. She was in the know. This guy was the real thing, man. None of the troubles of the late 1970s even appeared to be near this guy. Those problems were incidental. He had solutions. He knew.
Having been born in 1960 to parents who were absolutely devoted Kennedy Democrats, I recall whispering to myself that I would have to tell mom and dad that their only son was going Republican on them. What could cause such a transformation? It was only one thing -– that complete air of confidence and optimism.
This guy was going forward with or without the skeptics. He even looked like he was looking into the future and his eyes were fixed on a clear vision that anyone was welcome to share.
You’d see him shake his head now and then during press conferences or debates. On those occasions I read him to be thinking, “Nope, this guy just doesn’t get it.” Much like your parents telling you to fight back with a playground bully or to get back up and ride that two-wheeler, he just seemed baffled by those who refused to get on board and see things in a positive light.
Even after he got shot I recall hearing he had asked about his shooter in the hospital, “Now, what’s that guy’s beef?” A guy he would later reveal he prayed for as he laid on the hospital gurney. Vintage Reagan.
Time passed, skepticism ran amok and rumors of impending doom from his Voodoo economic programs were rampant. All we heard about was what ruination these methods were to bring about; what it imposed on the future. How today’s salad days would be tomorrow’s balloon payment come due.
Reagan seemed to have an inside track on all that though. He never wavered in his commitment to these ideas and again and again just shook his head over the nay-sayers. His position seemed to be, “Look pal, can’t you see that if we don’t do something quick, there ain’t gonna be any future to go bad. Now belly up to the bar, get behind some of these ideas and let’s put this country back on its feet.”
I began to see the wisdom of “the optimistic bluff.” Like maybe if you walk confidently and act alert, and look prepared and quit your darn whining about it all, maybe, just maybe you’ll start to build a following. And pretty soon people will believe, first in the cause and then in themselves. Then, great things will happen. Great things. This, above all other things, is what Ronald Reagan understood best.
I recall hearing that he insisted that an animated VHS version of his Star Wars Initiative be made for him to utilize when talking to the Soviets about the arms race. Being keenly aware of the language barriers involved in American/Russian negotiations, The Gipper found a way to make that into an advantage because he understood the impact of visual images.
Though staff insisted the technology to create a satellite that would intercept missiles and shoot them out of the sky was far from perfected he insisted this video tape be made.
Once at the negotiating table, he accurately introduced the video tape as something the United States was working on for the future although it was “far from perfection.”
Again, counting on the language barrier as an ace up his sleeve, the roomful of Soviets sat with their mouths open as the animated gyroscope pivoted and zeroed in on incoming missiles and destroyed them in make-believe outer space.
Despite his words and assurances that such technology was not quite available yet, the people in that room saw what they saw and their fear of our progress was apparent. Another “optimistic bluff,” poised ever so gently on the edge of the enemy’s mind.
Many say the turning point of the negotiations came in moments like that. A moment orchestrated by the great actor, the great communicator, the band leader that simply begged you to march with him. March optimistically. March forward.
Years would pass and I would become an active member of the Young Republicans Committee during my junior year of college. We got wind of an upcoming speech by the president in Columbus, Ohio and the National Chapter sent us 12 tickets to attend.
We rented a passenger van and went to the large hotel right in the middle of town. Suddenly there were Secret Service people, reporters, photographers, TV cameras and in the midst of all that was Ronald Reagan, my president. He was dressed in a beige jacket, brown pants, brightly striped tie in a Windsor knot. He walked with energy and enthusiasm unlike any man of that age I’d ever seen. He looked thoroughly happy to be there, to be the president, to be in charge of optimism. He spoke easily, comfortably and warmly. Never had I stood in a throng of so many people and felt so personally engaged.
The speech ended and the applause went up and my president was hustled down a long corridor and out of sight. The crowds began to head for the exits and somehow, my group got turned around and directed towards the back of the hotel where the president’s motorcade was idling just ahead.
Amidst his handlers and bodyguards, the president was still easily visible (he practically gave off a glow) and as they headed into the cars he turned around one more time to address the crowd who were all calling to him.
“Stay the course,” I shouted to him. A line I’d heard him use before. He pointed in my direction confirming my words with a nod and said to the crowd, “You better believe I will!” With that he ducked into the limo and I watched the motorcade disappear from sight. I don’t think it would have surprised me a bit if that car he was in had left the ground.
If only we could all retain that eye to the better future. The future we essentially will into being; the one that knows that a day that is partly cloudy is also, inevitably, partly sunny.
As we shape and mold the futures of our families, our employees, our peers, our church families, our schools, let us take a lesson from The Great Communicator and look into the future with heart and soul and optimism.
Yes, things are a lot different today and computerization and automation have taken the personal touch out of a lot that we once held dear but this great country of ours is the shining city on a hill that the rest of the world would sacrifice life and limb to enjoy.
Treat your days as a privilege, my friends, and you’ll find that optimism is an automatic by-product.
Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at email@example.com.