The roots of Ronald Reagan.
Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By FRED BARNES
"If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois.” That’s the first sentence in Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, An American Life. It was 1932, the Depression gripped the country, and Reagan had returned to Dixon (working over the summer as a lifeguard) after graduating from Eureka College, 100 miles away.
Montgomery Ward was opening a store in Dixon, a town of roughly 10,000, and wanted a local athlete to run its sporting goods department. Reagan, having played football at Dixon High School and Eureka, figured he was perfect for the job. He didn’t get it, and instead went into radio in Iowa, then movies in Hollywood, and . . . you know the rest.
Reagan became a Westerner, or at least that was his image, which often depicted him on horseback. In his second movie, Sergeant Murphy, he was a cavalry trooper (Sgt. Murphy was his horse). He starred in Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s before hosting the television show Death Valley Days. His statue in Rapid City, South Dakota, has him in a cowboy hat and Western gear. Even in Dixon, Reagan’s boyhood home, he’s riding a horse in one of the town’s two statues of him.
But Reagan the Westerner was mostly for show. The more we learn about him, the more we realize his values, his outlook on life, his embrace of leadership, his political style, and, to a significant extent, his political ideology were shaped by the first 26 years of his life in Illinois hamlets like Dixon, Tampico, and Eureka. Reagan was, first and foremost, a small-town Midwesterner at heart.
“There wouldn’t have been a President Reagan without his upbringing in the Midwest,” says Craig Shirley, who’s written books about Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980. Somewhere around 1,000 books about Reagan have been published, and several of his biographers, especially Lou Cannon and Anne Edwards, have emphasized the Midwestern influence. The academic community, however, has been slow to catch on.
For a “Reagan and the Midwest” seminar in January, Eureka College put out a call for scholarly papers on the subject. The response was underwhelming. Only seven academics submitted proposals. All seven were accepted, and the authors discussed them at the Eureka seminar. One dealt, interestingly enough, with Reagan’s experience at Eureka. “I don’t think it is stretching things to say that Eureka made Reagan and, in turn, Reagan made Eureka,” wrote James H. Capshew of Indiana University.
It is stretching things, but it’s also true that Eureka was enormously important to Reagan. He visited the school a dozen times after graduating, served on the board of trustees for 18 years, and was a major donor. “Everything that has been good in my life began here,” Reagan said at the Eureka commencement in 1982. It was at Eureka that, as a freshman, he spoke in support of a student strike (“When I walked off the stage that night, my life had changed,” Reagan wrote in his autobiography) and that he cultivated the love of theatrics and acting that his mother had instilled in him.
Eureka, in turn, has magnified its association with Reagan, adopting the task of promoting the “Reagan legacy” through a Reagan Forward initiative. The school’s president, David Arnold, was instrumental in creating the Ronald W. Reagan Society in 2008, run by John Morris of nearby Peoria, a Reagan admirer but not a Eureka grad. Morris attended George Washington University partly because it’s three blocks from the White House, where he worked as a volunteer during Reagan’s final year in office.
At the Reagan conference, Devan Bissonette of Delta College in Michigan noted that “part of [Reagan’s] remoteness dated back to his childhood” in the Midwest. Reagan certainly thought so. He was nine when he moved to Dixon and “a little slow in making really close friends,” he wrote. “In some ways, I think this reluctance to get close to people never left me completely. . . . I’ve been inclined to hold back a little of myself, reserving it for myself.”
The most ambitious paper was delivered by Jon Peterson of Ohio University. “Reagan’s anticommunist pronouncements, which shook the Cold War world, were rooted in ideas of good and evil that came from his mother and his Midwest upbringing,” he wrote. This is a new assertion about Reagan, so far as I know, and one worth taking seriously.
The papers were delivered during the first day of the conference. The second was devoted to a visit to Tampico, where Reagan was born 100 years ago, and Dixon, his home from 1920 to 1932. The Reagan sites in those towns are modest, homespun, charming, and operated by volunteers. No doubt they have a greater impact on visitors than an academic paper or college seminar. And they’re more poignant than the vast Reagan Library and Museum in California, which houses Air Force One. “It’s like going to visit Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin,” Morris says.
In Tampico, population 800, one can visit the apartment the Reagans rented above the First National Bank, including the bedroom in which Ronald Reagan was born. The museum next door sells (for $3.50) a postcard with a photo of a rainbow that ends on the Reagan birthplace. Reagan returned to Tampico in 1976 but couldn’t get in the apartment. It was rented and the door was locked. Now it’s owned by a Chicago lawyer, a Democrat, and open to the public.
In Dixon, the National Park Service offered to take over the two-story Reagan home, also rented, and operate it. The answer was no. “We decided Mr. Reagan would roll over in his grave if the park district owned his home,” the curator told me.
Tampico, Dixon, Eureka, and 10 other towns are connected by the Reagan Trail, which consists of roads that Reagan must have traveled while growing up. The trail was the dream of Eureka mayor Joe Serangeli, who lobbied for years to have it officially designated. The Illinois legislature finally went along in 1999.
So what if Reagan had gotten that job at Montgomery Ward in 1932? Might he have wound up as store manager and perhaps mayor of Dixon? Maybe, but I doubt it. Most of what shaped his life in the Midwest, including the sense of humor and lively storytelling he learned from his father, propelled him to greater things, farther from home. And he achieved them.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.