The last hundred days have found me on the campaign trail---travelling with a candidate who has high approval ratings and low negatives. His name, though spoken often in this tortuous political season, is not even on the ballot. Yet from what the handwringing and distraught undecideds and decideds have told me, as I crisscross the country, Ronald Reagan is the real winner in this election. And he will win on his economic, foreign policy, and legislative agendas, and more importantly, he will win on his character.
What accounts for a strong Reagan showing in this political season is the three-decade durability of the Reagan political platform and policy agenda. But what's more, it's Reagan the man who the electorate want back in office. People want his unique balm of optimism and confidence to be applied to a troubled and unstable world. Many have told me they cannot find a candidate of Reagan's vision and integrity anywhere in the political constellation today---much less on the ballot of either party. From the road I hear an almost a fatalistic tone from those ready to give up on American politics. Just then I remind them Reagan never gave up and would be saying with conviction--even today--that "America's best days are still ahead."
Traversing the campaign trail now--with a new Reagan book, released by the publisher just as this disruptive season political season launched--has brought back memories of the stops Air Force One made in the 1984 presidential campaign. It was an exciting time for those of us on the President's team, and although there were a few challenging rallies and a few protests along the way, the Reagans were generally riding high and the ultimate result--winning 49 states--was convincing enough. Now thirty-two years later, I have visited many of the same cities, spoken in many of the same halls and town squares Reagan did on his campaigns, but this time I am hearing a different tone coming from voices in the audiences of those who come out to listen and talk and just trade Reagan stories.
"While young people provide hope for the future, it is those who lived and worked during Reagan's two terms who feel they have the most to lose from this election. "
At every stop from Seattle to Cleveland and from Houston to Jacksonville I have heard sounds of desperation and seen tears shed for the future of our country. Many have articulated their fear that the light in the shining city metaphor Reagan often referred to is now growing dim. People often ask in bewilderment how this all happened and how we can find someone like Ronald Reagan and put them in a leadership role. There is a feeling that their country has been lost--and is not coming back in their lifetime. This is plainly what I am told by people who assume because I have written the latest book about Reagan that I can bring him back or at least have a politically satisfying solution that might give them hope.
On the streets of one town where I was signing books, a brilliant young high school student and history scholar recalled for me how his principal told him his personal safety could not be assured because he is a conservative. He went on to recount how he was threatened and had his grades lowered because he was a Republican. And yet he asked me to share with him how he could be more like Ronald Reagan and adopt the courage and vision of the 40th president.
At a stop in the Midwest, a nine-year-old boy came dressed in a navy blazer and white shirt and professed he was there because he wanted learn how to be like Reagan. I put him up on a chair in the front of the room and started my talk by introducing him as one hopeful sign for our future. In New England, another nine-year-old listened intently and then told his parents on the car ride home about how he could pattern his life after Reagan because he finally understood his character---referring to the President as a "knight going into battle with his armor on." On a western college campus, students who professed to be largely ignorant about Reagan wanted to follow him as a role model and asked how we could start an initiative to develop more personal integrity and character in our leaders.
While these young people provide hope for the future, it is those who lived and worked during Reagan's two terms who feel they have the most to lose from this election--and told me so. One woman told me her grandmother had been saved from drowning in the Rock River by Reagan, the youthful lifeguard, who reportedly saved a total of seventy-seven lives while he worked there several summers. Another told of meeting Reagan on the back lot at Paramount while she was merely a young gofer carrying a tall pile of scripts when the actor Reagan stopped to help her carry the load and encouraged her to become a film producer. She felt he had given her the vision and hope for her success which she was later able to achieve. One man was just about to walk out the same door Reagan did at the Washington Hilton that fateful day in 1981 when he heard the shots ring out and ran back into the building. One foster mother told of her son's service on the USS Reagan the day the 40th President died and how he had charge of lowering the flag and folding it for delivery to Nancy Reagan and how much this meant to him. And this is just a tiny fraction of the stories I have heard. These are ordinary Americans thinking back and thinking forward but always thinking about life in America and considering their options in November.
Ronald Reagan was a force of character. He drew people up close to his ideas, ideals, and to his platform. Never to himself. He was too shy, too reticent, to sell his personality so instead he chose to sell his view of America and his brand of optimism for its future. He set a standard against which the current nominees are a startling comparison. Since there are so many Americans who lived and prospered under Reagan, their recollection of him actually helps form and contributes to the historically high unfavorable ratings of both the candidates. It is the inevitable comparison between what they remember of a leader who cared more about America than himself-- and wanted to be remembered for that--than what they hear and see on the campaign trail now.
The current candidates talk of bridge and highway building through infrastructure bills they will sponsor in Congress. Reagan built bridges and roads between people and between political parties. The candidates speak in ways that will continue to divide Americans along hardened lines of social and cultural phenomena. Reagan felt the strength of America depended on his bringing people together not dividing them. These candidates want to lead by telling people what to think. Reagan lead by encouraging people to tell him what to think. Our current choices somehow are the ones who know better than we do and yet ask to us to place them in a position of ultimate political power.
The most profound meaning of what I have heard from a majority of my fellow Americans I have met on this tour and what gives me hope is that they have convinced me that they understand what true character-based leadership and that they will know it when they see it expressed by their leaders. Reagan set the character bar high and while voters don't want to take it down--just now, for a moment in history, their political options are limited are limited. I think they have a feeling they need to get to work and produce, train, and encourage potential leaders for our future who will earn their trust and lead America as did this man--the one candidate standing in shadows of recent history who they would call back on stage for a second act.