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What Ronald Reagan told PBS in 1979 reveals about the American Dream then, and now

OpinionWhat Ronald Reagan told PBS in 1979 reveals about the American Dream then, and now

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Every year on February 6th, America gets to celebrate anew the birth of its 40th President, Ronald Reagan, who was born on February 6, 1911. We remember and revere him not just because of his service to our nation, but for how he made us feel when he was President. We were patriotic, proud, and powerful under the Reagan presidency – all traits we seem to currently be lacking – and longing for.

Americans love to remember Reagan because they love to recall the feeling they had when he was president – bold and unapologetic on the world stage, he advocated for freedom in places which could never imagine having it. Domestically he encouraged innovation, investing, advancing, and increasing. Under Reagan, success was attainable, and was facilitated, not punished, by government. 

When we revisit Reagan’s words and his legacy, we find he is an endless treasure trove of wisdom and surprise. I recently discovered an audio interview recorded eighteen months before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, which reflects a sentiment prevalent today. 

On April 30, 1979, Ronald Reagan sat down with Bill Moyers of PBS who asked him, “Somebody described Reagan country as a land of well-kept lawns and chambers of commerce, a town square, a nice place to raise kids and have a bar-b-que. Do you think that Reagan country – that part of America – sees and understands the America of dirty streets and crime and poor people?”

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Reagan replied, “Yes, because most of them came from there. I have said that the difference between some of those people, myself, and people like myself, is that they can have compassion for someone who is needy – oh yes – let’s have a government program to help that person. We all have compassion for those people and the needy. But I also have compassion for those families out there in America today where the husband and wife are both working, not because she wants to have a career, but if they are going to pay the mortgage on the house in this inflationary age, she has to. And if they’re going to send the kids on to school, they both have to work. 50% of wives are now working and all they ask is freedom themselves. And they are getting worse off, not better off. And I think there ought to be enough compassion for these people who are making this system of ours work. They’re the backbone of America. And who the devil is passing programs for them?”

Yes, Ronald Reagan had a heart for the poor – he was raised in poverty. But he also had a heart for people of the hard-working middle class who were doing all they could to help those in need, while still facing their own struggle to put food on their tables, clothe and educate their kids, keep a roof over their heads, maybe buy a modest home, and try to save a bit for retirement. 

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Their version of the American Dream was not to have it all, but to have enough. Reagan wanted to help them move from needing, to having. He saw those people too, not just the underprivileged. This is why middle America loved Reagan too. He was equally their advocate, not just the poor.

Ronald Reagan believed that America belonged to all of us – and all of us should have an equal chance to benefit and be blessed by freedom of opportunity, not just the wealthy and privileged. He wanted to help those who truly needed a safety net, while not overwhelmingly adding that burden to their hard-working neighbors. 

Likewise, today, many feel as if they are what Donald Trump calls “the forgotten man” – those who do their part, pay their taxes, and contribute positively to their communities, yet are often forgotten, or worse, are targeted or penalized by the very government to which they are loyal.

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The Republican Party, more than ever, is still the party of Reagan. Advocating for opportunity and prosperity for every American, not just those at the top – or at the bottom – but for those in the middle too. This is not due to government intervention or handouts, but happens best when government gets out of the way. 

For Reagan, this was described in that same interview with Moyers, in his usual optimistic way, “For the first time in man’s history we unleashed the individual genius of every man to climb as high and as far as his own ability will take him. We live in the future in America – we always have – and better days are yet to come.” 

Ronald Reagan’s words are timeless, and worth revisiting and celebrating as we remember and honor his life. “Individual genius of every man” is indeed what makes America great – and will continue to advance and secure America’s future.

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