by Joe Giardiello
Ronald Reagan changed my life, as he did so many others, in a profound and fundamental way. So how do you say goodbye to your hero?
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.-- Ronald Reagan, 1964
Overcast skies greeted Simi Valley last Sunday morning. Fitting I suppose. But maybe it would have been more appropriate to have one of those brilliant Southern California mornings of sun and mild ocean breezes. Anyway, the gloom that pervaded fit my mood just perfectly. It was still too soon after hearing the news to feel the optimism with which Ronald Reagan looked at life.
You can see the back of the Reagan Library on the hillside just a few miles from my home. The gleaming body of Air Force One, in the midst of being prepared as the library’s newest exhibit, can be seen reaching out over the hillside, still waiting to have its wings reattached to resume its proud service to President Ronald Reagan.
I impulsively pulled off the highway exit that goes past the library. The entrance is just a few miles on the left, and for some reason I felt I had to see it. Already, barely half a day from when the world first learned of the great man’s passing, an impromptu memorial started to appear. Flags, signs, a red, white and blue teddy bear. Handwritten notes -- some pages long -- were already gathered at the entrance to the library’s drive. I stopped and added a small American Flag pin to the collection.
A Political Awakening
I was just fifteen years old when Reagan ran for president in 1980. Coming from a Democratic family, I wasn’t supporting Reagan. Despite what was happening with our hostages in Iran, despite a national economy in freefall, the best hope to restore American pride could not possibly be a cowboy actor from California.
Not that I understood politics at the time. My feeling was simply because our family supported Democrats. Besides, Reagan was a “warmonger” and would almost certainly have had us in a shooting war with the Soviet Union before you knew it. That would make me draft age quite possibly around the time the missiles started flying. The math of a Reagan presidency just didn’t seem to be working in my favor.
The speculation that Reagan would quickly have us in a war with the world’s other superpower is not something we simply remember in hindsight. His opponents really discussed such possibilities as the coming of World War III should Reagan be elected president. Still too young to cast a real ballot, I obediently voted for Jimmy Carter in the student elections.
But wouldn’t you know it, the actor won. What kind of world were we in for now, my undeveloped mind wondered. I would soon be taught a valuable political lesson.
People of earlier generations remember where they were when they heard Roosevelt died. Others remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when I heard of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. I was on a city bus coming home from school when an old, rail-thin gentleman got on the bus. He sat down across the aisle from me with his head down. He suddenly looked up and swiveled his head from side-to-side and said to no one in particular, “Have you heard the president was shot?”
The words ricocheted through me. The president was shot? That didn’t happen anymore. That was something that was read about in the history books.
A rapid discussion ensued between a handful of people on the bus around me. No one seemed to know if the president was still alive. One person said he heard he was. Another said he was certain someone had died, but he didn’t know who. Someone else mentioned Kennedy and said how his assassination had affected him. I sat in dumb silence.
When I finally got home, after the longest bus ride of my life, I sat glued to the television in the kitchen, listening to the newscasters repeat the same information over and over, not really sure how the president was doing, first announcing the death of the president’s press secretary, then changing the story. What kind of bullets were used, were they still in the president. And then there was the speculation that no one wanted to even think about: Was this part of some nefarious grand plan by America’s enemies, possibly the opening act of a preemptive nuclear first strike.
The president’s quips and one-liners from the operating table have now passed into legend. And the Gipper made more than one convert that day. Anyone who would stare into the face of death and laugh was someone I could like. At first, it was the sheer force of Reagan’s personality that won me over. I still didn’t have the first clue about the difference in tax rates or what a medium range ballistic missile was. The knowledge of issues came over time under the long distance tutelage from the White House.
But the blinders were finally removed. I was secure in the knowledge that America was in good hands after all. Then came Grenada.
The Cubans, under dictator Fidel Castro, were trying to set up a client state in the tiny island nation of Grenada in order to export terror and destabilize the region’s democracies. Reagan made the momentous decision to join the Caribbean nations to remove the threat. With minimal loss of life, the ultimate Cold Warrior took the first step in the rollback of international Communism. Hundreds of Cuban military troops and warehouses full of military equipment were found. Construction had already started on a runway that could accommodate long-range Soviet bombers. “We got there just in time,” Reagan told us.
That afternoon, I went to visit the Navy recruiter for the first time, eventually signing up to serve my county and my president as an Intelligence Analyst. A committed Reaganite by the time of his reelection campaign, I was able to watch the returns the night before I reported to begin my Navy service. My mother, a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat, voted for her first Republican that year.
My first duty station was overseas. The only U.S. news access we had was the previous day's airing of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, which played at noon on Armed Forces television. Each day a group of us would gather in the conference room and watch the news. We all came supplied with a handful of rubber bands, which would rain down on the TV with each pronouncement by Mr. Rather about some perceived ill of Ronald Reagan. There were thousand of rubber bands that hit that television over the years.
I also began subscribing to political magazines around this time. National Review, the magazine Reagan read, was the first and most influential in my life. If Reagan gave conservatism a human face; Bill Buckley made it cool.
When I came back stateside after four years overseas, I was stationed in San Diego. Michael Reagan had a local radio show at that time and I was an avid listener. By now out of office for a few years, Reagan was going to be on his son’s show. I called in over an hour early to be able to speak to the president and was able to talk the call screener into letting me stay on hold until the show started.
When it finally became time to take calls, I was first up. I thanked the President for his leadership in ending the cold war. He gave his trademark “Welllll” and said he sure was honored when people said things like that about him and then proceeded to give everyone else credit for the toppling of the evil empire.
Ironically, it was also Ronald Reagan who caused me to leave the service. By 1989 I was a Soviet Surface Forces Analyst. The only problem was there was no longer a Soviet Surface Force to worry about. With the start of the first Gulf War, I requested the opportunity to serve in the Middle East. But in the perverse way of any bureaucracy, they decided I was a Soviet analyst and might be needed in that capacity. Ronald Reagan’s steadfastness in the face of the Soviet threat and some of our own countrymen who opposed his policies had put me out of a job. As the song goes, “After all these years I’ve found, my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around.”
“This is like a conservative Woodstock,” my friend Dan said after surveying the thousands of people in the line that snaked through the campus of Moorpark College waiting to get on the bus to take them to the viewing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Woodstock without the drugs and the rain and the music. But the people were there. Oh, the people. Our group decided we would go at 10:00 Tuesday evening to avoid the throngs, figuring the after-work crowd would be thinned out by then. No such luck.
People were sleeping anywhere they could find a spot. Cardboard boxes were used to build makeshift shelters. People even used newspapers as blankets against the cold -- or what passes for the cold in Southern California.
And they just kept coming -- over 106,000 based on news reports. Rumors in the line abounded as to the amount of time it would take. Four hours, seven hours, some even suggested 10 hours. And from the look of the line, nothing would have surprised us. And yet, there was hardly even a suggestion that we should decide not to wait it out. The only people around us who seemed to be leaving were those who had to go to work the next morning and weren’t sure if they would be out of the line in time.
A memorial tent was set up at the college for people to leave their remembrances of the president. Besides the usual flowers and gift there were dozens of handwritten notes and letters. One declared in large letter, “Thank you for helping the people of Guatemala and helping to make us free.” Many thanked the president for making them believe in America again. Someone left one of those familiar Styrofoam hats you see at political conventions, a faded and cracking “Reagan 76” sticker still attached.
You enter the large front courtyard of the Reagan Library through a gate. In the center is a large fountain. The line to pay last respects formed on the right side as you entered. It was eerily quiet. Through the crowd on the other end of the courtyard you could see the red, white and blue of the flag that adorned the casket.
As you prepared to enter the lobby of the library building, there was a wholly unnecessary sign reminding you to “maintain silence.” But there really was not much of a chance that anyone would violate that rule, sign or no sign. The only sound you could hear were the respectful foot falls on the tiled floor.
The line circled the flag-draped casket. It was surrounded by an honor guard -- representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard -- that was changed every thirty minutes.
Silent eyes remained fixed on the casket as we circled, our heads pivoting as we made the small loop. Eyes moistened, hearts beat a little faster. Minds wandered to that one moment, that one incident that, to you, defined Ronald Reagan. It was an intensely personal experience shared by thousands of souls.
Here and there someone would pause as if to say a silent prayer. Another stopped and saluted his former Commander-in-Chief. The honor guard, all of whom seemed hardly old enough to even remember Reagan as president, stood in reverent silence, the crisp lines of their uniforms a testament to the care and dedication they put into this final tribute.
The temptation for one final look over your shoulder as you approached the door to exit was irresistible. It was real. He was truly gone.
It was all over in about three minutes. Nine hours of waiting for three minutes. And worth every second. I envied those who still had the experience ahead of them in both California and in Washington, D.C.
Ronald Reagan changed my life, as he did so many others, in a profound and fundamental way. So how do you appropriately end an essay that says goodbye to your hero? Maybe by quoting the great man himself on the future of the nation he loved and served so ably:
Some may try and tell us that this is the end of an era. But what they overlook is that in America every day is a new beginning, and every sunset is merely the latest milestone on a voyage that never ends. For this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming. Emerson was right: America is the Land of Tomorrows.
God Bless You, Ronald Reagan. I shall never forget.
Joe Giardiello is the editor of PoliticalUSA.com and district chief-of-staff for California State Senator Tom McClintock. He served in the Navy under Commander-in-Chief Ronald Reagan.