Feb. 6 marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, but the day had meaning for me even before I went to work for President Reagan in 1983. My father, Rudy, who died at age 60 in a car wreck in 1978, shared Reagan's birthday, and I often wondered what he would have thought had he lived to see his daughter working in the White House -- and for a Republican president.
Rudy was a staunch Democrat of the New Deal variety. He'd grown up destitute during the Depression and dropped out of school in ninth grade. He joined FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps to help put food on the table for his mother and siblings, while his father served more than 10 years in Fort Leavenworth prison for selling bootleg whiskey during Prohibition. But I think if he had lived a few more years, Rudy would have become as big a fan of Reagan as I was.
Like many Democrats of his era, Rudy was staunchly anti-communist, believed anyone who was physically able should work and not take government handouts, and loved the United States with every fiber of his being. The proudest moments of his life were serving his country in World War II as a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps over New Guinea, where he was shot down. He believed we were the greatest nation in the history of the world. If my father had lived until 1980, I can't help but believe he'd have voted for Reagan, as I did, even though at the time, I was still a registered Democrat.
It's hard for many people to remember just how discouraged many Americans felt in 1980. In the previous decade, the United States had suffered a humiliating loss of nerve, if not outright defeat, in Vietnam. We'd witnessed Soviet expansion in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America. Fifty-two Americans were being held hostage in Iran -- for more than a year -- after attempts to rescue them had failed miserably, leaving eight American servicemen dead in the desert. The economy was in recession; mortgage rates were 13 percent and the prime rate went over 20 percent during the year; inflation was running at almost 14 percent and unemployment at 7.5 percent.
Reagan gave Americans hope -- but he also changed the country, dramatically and quickly. His policies reined in inflation, allowed Americans to keep more of the money they earned, and helped create jobs in the private sector -- the largest peacetime expansion since World War II -- by lowering tax rates. But even more importantly, in my view, Reagan rebuilt the nation's defenses, helped stop the expansion of communism in our own hemisphere, and advanced the development of new weapons that made it impossible for the Soviets to keep up, which hastened the fall of the Soviet Union.
When I went to work for Reagan, first as director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and later as director of public liaison in the White House, I got to see the president up close. It wasn't until then that I fully realized what kind of man he was. He wasn't just a great leader; he was a funny, warm, compassionate person. He went out of his way to recognize ordinary people doing the unglamorous work that keeps the country moving.
Once, when we were travelling in the backseat of the presidential limousine, he apologized that he couldn't look at me while we talked because it was important to the people lining the streets that he wave at them and catch their eye.
"They'll be telling their grandkids about the day they saw the president of the United States," he said, humbly, as if his own personal magnetism had nothing to do with the reason they'd come out in the first place.
My husband will always be the most important influence in my life. But President Reagan and my father were each a close second.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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