On Saturday, in a humid gym in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, whispered words about Ronald Reagan's death spread among Bucknell University's Class of 1994. It was our ten year reunion, a milestone at which we can finally be considered true adults, most of us anyway. So, it's a good place to reflect on Reagan's days as president, a time when we went from childhood to adolescence and started noticing the world beyond us. Some of us discovered politics, and those of us who did saw a president whose personality had its own gravitational force.
If you grew up during the 1980s, there was no way not to be influenced by Reagan. Many of us had our political philosophies shaped by him; we were the Children of Reagan, the kids who came of age during his presidency, kids whose eyes were opened by the sunny conservatism that seemed to beam from his relaxed smile. Just as J.F.K. left an indelible mark on baby boomers, Reagan left his mark on us.
In the late 1970s, before the Age of Reagan, I remember my mother waiting in lines that snaked around the block just to fill up a tank of gas. I have vague memories of a trip to Toronto with my grandparents when President Carter delivered a major speech. We watched from our hotel room, but I was too young to understand or remember the topic; maybe it was the infamous "malaise speech," perhaps it was about Iran. From my father's office, I could see the hostage calendar in Times Square. It counted up to 444, the number of days that 52 American citizens were held captive in Iran. They were freed the day President Reagan was sworn in, the day the 1970s were pronounced dead.
At the time, I didn't know much about politics. But in my family, politics was always discussed. And even though I didn't always know what people were talking about, I knew it sounded exciting. I wanted to talk about it, too. In second grade, I asked other kids in the schoolyard of P.S. 158 whether their parents were voting for Carter or Reagan. At the time, most of my family--the Maloney side of it, anyway--were Democrats. Therefore, I too was a Democrat. My political allegiance was inherited, much like how I became a Yankees fan.
The day President Reagan was shot, I spent the afternoon in the apartment of an after-school sitter. We watched the news in silence as the footage was played over and over again. The images are burned into my memory, the visuals can be recalled perfectly, a mental TiVo recording that allows instant access to that day. Gunshots, screams, people pushed to the ground, others shoved against a wall, the crowd scattering. With a bullet lodged in his chest--one inch from his heart--President Reagan walked to the hospital and cracked jokes with the doctors.
The PATCO strike was the first big controversy of the Reagan presidency that I remember. PATCO--the air traffic controllers union--threatened a strike, which would have shut down all air travel in the country. The paralysis of the gas shortages would have been replayed, just in a different form. In PATCO's case, striking would have been illegal, and because the air traffic controllers were federal employees, Reagan had leverage. He promised to fire any PATCO member who carried out the strike threat. They struck anyway. Reagan fired the strikers, hired replacements, and broke the union. I was too young to understand the significance, but one thing was obvious: we now had a president who drove events, rather than let them drive over him. When presented with a crisis, Ronald Reagan didn't fritter away his presidency fretting his way towards indecision.
In seventh grade, my class was assigned a five-minute oral presentation on current events. My topic was nuclear weapons, and like the good little Democrat I was at the time, I stood in front of the class and worried about how President Reagan would incinerate the globe. I pleaded breathlessly about how we needed to scrap our nuclear arsenal for the good of the world, so we could have peace. It was a great performance, a real "what about the children?" whine-fest designed to tug at the heart strings. The only problem was, about half-way through my talk, I realized that I didn't believe a word of it. Ronald Reagan made me feel safe, because I knew it was better to be stronger than the people whose missiles were pointed at us. I finished the presentation and sat down feeling like a fraud.
There I was, ready to be converted, but there was nobody around to convert me. Attending public school in New York City, there weren't many in-the-flesh Republican role models. When my social studies class conducted a mock election, Mondale beat Reagan by a margin of 35 to 5. So even though my inherited Democratic label was coming unglued, it wasn't a until a few months later--after the election of 1984--that I finally cast it off. At the New York City marathon, a few days before the election, I handed out leaflets for Walter Mondale. Cognitive dissonance takes a little while to work its magic, so until sometime after Mondale lost 49 states, I continued believing I was a liberal, even though part of me realized by then that I wasn't.
Such was the power of Reagan--the Great Communicator--that he could reach this seventh-grader in a bastion of liberalism. Even before my political philosophy was formed, something about Reagan just seemed right. He could be standing behind a podium, talking to a cheering crowd, captured by cameras, beamed up into space, bounced back by a satellite, and pumped through a cable into the back of your television, and you'd still feel as close to him as little kid sitting on his grandfather's lap. When Reagan spoke, you felt as though he was speaking to you and you alone.
But I guess I wasn't alone. Talking to my old classmates in that gym, it was obvious how many others in my generation were affected by Ronald Reagan. After all, we were the Children of Reagan.