The Summer of 1979 and the Rise of Reagan

Posted: Jul 01, 2011 11:31 AM

Anaheim, California is a city of more than 330,000 people, the 10th largest in California, and known the world over as the home of Disneyland. On Friday July 1 it also becomes the home of Ronald Reagan Park.

Mayor Tom Tait was the force behind the dedication of the park to the 40th president. Tait was elected mayor of the city last year, having previously served nearly a decade on the city council beginning in 1995. Tait is widely admired across the region as a successful businessman, a leader in the not-for-profit community, and the husband of Julie and dad to four great kids.

Tait’s a sunny optimist, a believer in the ability of California to come back, and insistent on local government as servant of the people. He stresses that the city works for the people who live there and the employers and employees of the private sector who thrive there, and campaigned on making sure that everyone knew the local government was there to assist the private sector and encourage the citizenry in its projects and lives, not to be a dominant force in the day-to-day affairs of the people.

Tait is thus one of Reagan’s heirs, one of the young men and women in the years of Reagan who are now in the prime of their public and business careers, whose lives were deeply shaped by a president who, though he last served in the office almost a quarter century ago, remains not merely a happy memory but a vibrant force in their lives.

Reagan had many ties to Anaheim, including as co-host of ABC’s live broadcast of the opening of Disneyland in 1955. He campaigned there frequently in his years in politics, and like every other Republican leader of any stature, attended fundraising dinner and rally after fundraising dinner and rally at the Anaheim Convention Center. Having a park in his memory is altogether a fitting thing for Anaheim.

But the real genius behind Tait’s move to have the park dedicated now, in the early summer of 2011, is because the times are so similar to those of 1979, when Reagan was making his way towards his epic landslide win in the presidential battle of November 1980.

The country was in a bad place in 1979, with the economy stagnant, inflation rising and interest rates soaring. “Stagflation” was the term birthed by the years of Jimmy Carter.

Abroad Cuban soldiers spread out across Africa, our strongest ally in the oil-rich world of the Middle East, Iran, was in the throes of the bloody revolution that toppled the Shah and saw the rise of Khomeini. The Soviets were a vast and dangerous empire, in the midst of preparations for its late December invasion of Afghanistan.

Even worse times were ahead, with the Iranian hostage crisis looming and Carter’s befuddlement growing by the day.

But help was on the way, even though America didn’t believe it at the time. In the summer of 1979 Reagan was hardly the obvious choice for the GOP nomination and few thought he could both get the nod and then go on to beat the incumbent president. Former Texas Governor John Connally, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker and former CIA Director and Ambassador to China George H.W. Bush were all rising forces with strong supporters and clear advantages over the aging and out-of-office former California governor who was thought by many to be too old and too conservative to win the right to lose to the sitting president. Reagan had, after all, lost his match-up with Gerald Ford in 1976, and if Reagan couldn't beat Ford who then lost the White House, how could Reagan get the nomination must less a win in November of 1980?

Of course Reagan triumphed, and brought with him a commitment to strong defense, individual liberty and a private-sector first agenda as well as an extraordinary array of talented individuals to Washington, D.C., including a core of Californians like Ed Meese, Michael Deaver, William French Smith and Cap Weinberger even as he reached out to stock the GOP bench with rising young talents like William Bennett and John Roberts. Reagan's not-so-secret weapon was Nancy Reagan, whose style and shining support transformed and uplifted inner Washington with a breathtaking rapidity.

Leaders matter. National moods can change over night. Course shift and trajectories change. These are important things to recall in 2011.

Michael Reagan, the child of Reagan most like his father when it comes to a vision of government, was asked to keynote the Anaheim park’s dedication and as Michael always does, he triggered everyone’s recollection of their best memories of his father –happy, upbeat, telling a joke and everyone’s friend.

But far more than memories, Michael and Tait and the park itself reminds us all that America is never obliged to stay on its back when knocked down. Time and time again in its history it has risen up, powerful and purposeful, renewed in its commitment to liberty and leadership, and capable of great things made manifest in the words of great leaders.

2011, like 1979, will hopefully be remembered as the time of the beginning of a renaissance, and a generation from now a park will be dedicated to a yet-unknown 45th president who once again, turned American around.