At 100, why Ronald Reagan still matters

Published: Saturday, Feb. 5 2011 9:00 p.m. MST

Governor Ronald Reagan address the members of the western Governors Conference in October 1977.

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A century after his birth, Ronald Reagan still looms large over the landscape of American politics. Everyone from U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, who kept a cardboard cutout of Reagan in his campaign office during his recent campaign, to President Barack Obama have invoked Reagan as a model of effective governance. For Republicans, he has become the de facto godfather of the party, a man nearly on par with Lincoln. "If you start ticking off presidents all the way back as far as you can remember, I think he stands out as one of the top three or four that we've had in this country," says former Utah Congressman Jim Hansen.

Reagan's connections with Utah were surprisingly deep and meaningful. While U.S. presidents dating back to Ulysses S. Grant visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Lyndon B. Johnson considered David O. McKay a close confidant), none came to Utah more than Reagan. "As a politician he made nine trips here as a candidate or someone who came and spoke to the state conventions, or to visit BYU," says Ron Fox, a White House advanceman from Nixon to George W. Bush. "He just had an affinity for the people."

The Deseret News' Michael De Groote and Paul Edwards recently sat down with eight Utahns who knew Reagan well, from his former assistant secretary of state to the man who kept his schedule to the wife of his solicitor general. Their conversation revealed a man who continues to wield influence even after his death.

Michael De Groote: Time magazine's cover this week has a photo illustration of President Reagan with President Barack Obama. In what ways are President Obama and President Reagan similar? In what ways do they diverge?

Ambassador Greg Newell: They are similar in being articulate. A difference is that President Reagan was an experienced, wise leader born of many years. President Obama has been learning his way. He lacked that experience. Experience gives judgment and wisdom. Reagan had both. Obama has neither.

Lt. Gov. John Harmer: I can give you two stories that illustrate the difference. We were in a staff meeting once in Gov. Reagan's office. And it got very, very heated. There were about six of us around the desk with the governor. It got very intense. So he reached over and picked up the jellybeans off his desk. He put a couple in his mouth, and then he handed it to the person next to him and the jellybeans went around the room. And when the jellybeans got back to Reagan it was very calm, very civil, everybody was being polite. It was a masterful example of leadership in a tense situation.

The other story is we were walking down the hall from his office to the elevator. On the wall were a series of very, very bitter political cartoons against him. And I looked at him and said, "What do you got these on the wall for?" And he said, "Oh, I love them. Whenever I see one I write the editorial cartoonist and ask for it. Every time I walk down this hall, I remember I'm human and I make mistakes and people can be very angry with me." So I'm suggesting, from what little I know about President Obama, that the difference is that Reagan never forgot that he was what he was and never needed to be reminded that the people around him needed to be respected.

Sen. Jake Garn: The thing I want to add about that is his absolute honesty. Too many people in high positions hate to ask questions, they want to know everything. But on the space program, I can't tell you how many times I was called down to the White House and he would ask, "Jake would you please explain this to me? Would you tell me about this program?" And he actually called me, I was on the space shuttle Discovery, and the commander said, "Jake, there's a telephone call for you." And I said, "Really?" And he said, "Yeah." And I got on and I said, "Who is this?" And he said, "It's Ron." And I said, "Ron who?" "Well, I hate to say this, but it's President Reagan and I just wanted to call and see how you are doing."

De Groote: What is Ronald Reagan's legacy to America?

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