Monday, February 21, 2011

Reagan's Forgotten Moment of Courage

A poll released over the weekend in time for Presidents Day found that most Americans consider Ronald Reagan the country’s greatest president. The poll showed Reagan drawing strong support among both Republicans and Independents, outpolling the second most popular president – Abraham Lincoln – by five points (Bill Clinton, with 13 percent, came in third). This is the third time Reagan came in on top in this annual Gallup poll.

In all fairness, it is hard for me to imagine Abraham Lincoln not topping any list of America’s greatest presidents. Still, President Reagan remains the first, and the best, president for whom I ever personally voted. He certainly left his mark on the political landscape more indelibly than any other president who served during the past 50 years.

Over the weekend I re-watched PBS’s documentary about Reagan.  It made me nostalgic – and a little depressed as well. Compared to Reagan and all his natural gifts as a communicator and a leader, all of the Republican politicos cited as future presidential candidates seem to come up short. Reagan defeated an incumbent president, and then went on to trounce a former vice president in a 49 state landslide. He may have made his successes seem easy, but they weren’t. Every president who has served since Reagan has, at different times during his tenure, has had more success dividing rather than unifying the American people.

Reagan’s personal courage – known primarily because of the way he responded to the assassination attempt that nearly killed him – is a constant theme in every book I have ever read about him. But for me, one lesser-known incident really speaks to the measure of the man.

It occurred April 14, 1992, more than three years after Reagan left the White House and about two-and-a-half years before he disclosed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis to the American people. Reagan was living the life of breezy recreation many presidents choose when they leave the White House.  He played golf, visited his newly-opened presidential library, rode horses at his Santa Barbara ranch, and picked up the occasional award.

On this day, President Reagan had traveled to Las Vegas to pick up an award from the National Association of Broadcasters. The president was onstage delivering his acceptance speech when a maniac approached the podium, grabbed the glass trophy, and smashed it on the floor. Eighty-one-year-old Reagan looked up at the man, his expression reflecting surprise and a little anger, but no fear. The man then shoved Reagan as he reached for the microphone.

It took about ten seconds for the first Secret Service agent to arrive and subdue the intruder, as gasps emerged from the audience. As the man was dragged off, other agents moved Reagan protectively to the other side of the stage. After things had died down, Reagan returned to center stage, bent over and tried to salvage what was left of the shattered award.  An uncomfortable silence filled the auditorium.

Reagan retook the podium and resumed the speech where he had left off. When he finished the prepared text, the president looked up at the audience and said, "I think I'm going to go out and see who that guy is." He then tugged at his jacket sleeves as if he were spoiling for a fight, flashed the old smile, and waved.

The audience went crazy.

I remember watching the news report on CNN the day it happened, but have never seen this very scary incident referenced in any subsequent Reagan biography or documentary. But when I think of Reagan the man, this incident invariably comes to mind, because it illustrated the qualities that made Reagan great: strength, resolve, grace, and courage.

In researching this blog entry, I found this New York Times story regarding this incident. I was unable to find any video of the incident itself. If you happen to find it, please email me or post it as a comment here.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post RJC...Reagan certainly was quite a man and a leader...sorry to say that I was totally unfamiliar with the incident, but did some searching and found this picture http://www.raptorial.com/HOF/Springer.html, but no vid...keep up the good work!

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