Last February 6, Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old. I met him only once and then for not much more than a handshake, but seared into my memory are his radiant smile and sharp, penetrating eyes. We discussed our mutual friendship with my former legislative colleague Tom Rolfe. Tom was a leader in the movement to elect Reagan president.
In connection with that effort, Tom had a powerfully revealing personal experience with Reagan that is now preserved in the Mansfield Library archives at the University of Montana. With Tom’s permission I will share it with you here.
In the 1976 Republican National Convention, Reagan was a few votes behind Gerald Ford. The outcome would be close, but Reagan appeared certain to lose. Some of his dismayed supporters, realizing that at 69, Reagan would probably be too old to run again in 1980, devised a bold strategy to wrest the nomination from Ford.
Their idea was to get Reagan on the convention platform where his rhetorical ability could stampede the convention his way. Any pretense could be used to get Reagan in front of the delegates before the critical roll call vote, but the real motive would be to give him a chance to use his charisma and powers of persuasion to capture the nomination.
Tom and a small group of Reagan leaders were hurriedly ushered into a private meeting room to personally present the idea to Reagan. Tom said Reagan sat silently for a few seconds. Then in a soft voice he said, “Well, it might work, but it would be a deception, wouldn’t it?” Reagan then told his devoted followers that he “could not in good conscience obtain the nomination to the highest office in our country by means of a deception.”
Tom witnessed the poignant scene as Reagan resolutely shook hands around the table, thanking and saying goodbye to these his most loyal supporters, some with tears in their eyes. He probably believed like they that he would never have another chance to be president.
You have free articles remaining.
Reagan’s reaction confirmed the greatness of his character. He had the ability to win his party’s presidential nomination by questionable means. He had the integrity not to do so, even realizing that in all likelihood he would never get the chance again.
We know that in spite of the age barrier he went on to win our nation’s highest office, and now according to opinion surveys, he is the most highly regarded American president in the last 50 years. Even to those who were never his supporters, that should not come as a surprise.
Reagan was the real deal. He was comfortable with who he was and had the confidence and skill to lead both by inspiration and action. When Social Security was drifting into insolvency he worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neil to get it back on track. He knew how to reach out for allies without retreating from his principles.
Reagan led us by his best instincts and in doing so brought out the best in us.
Today’s constant political gamesmanship leads nowhere and creates public contempt. It proves the truth of the old rhyme “What a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.” Reagan wouldn’t win by deception, and he succeeded because he didn’t lead by it either.
Bob Brown, former Montana Senate president and secretary of state, writes from Whitefish.