On Feb. 6, 1911, a son was born to Jack and Nelle Reagan in the small town of Tampico, Ill. The parents called their newborn "Ronald," but his father affectionately nicknamed him "Dutch" because he said the infant looked like "a fat Dutchman." Not the most flattering description by Dad, but it was given with affection, a sense of humor, and a down-to-earth candor. These qualities reflected the way Ronald Reagan was raised. [See photos from Ronald Reagan's life.]
His was an average middle-class household where he had no special advantages. No family fortune. No insider connections. No shortcuts. But through hard work, seizing the opportunities at hand, and some luck, "Dutch" would rise from his relatively humble beginnings to achieve remarkable success, first as an actor in Hollywood and then in politics as governor of California, then as a leader of America's conservative movement, and for eight years starting in January 1981, as president of the United States.
As the nation prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, the question arises: Why has Ronald Reagan retained a hold on the popular imagination? Polls of historians often rate him in the top tier of presidents, and everyday Americans tend to agree.
Of course, Reagan did have some failures. His policies allowed the deficit to grow exponentially, and he seemed insensitive at times to the poor and others who relied on Washington for help. And he was more than a bit disengaged from the details of governing and sometimes delegated too much authority to his aides, which led to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
But most Americans felt that the pluses outweighed the minuses. One of Reagan's strong points is that he never forgot his roots in Middle America. He seemed to intuitively understand what everyday people valued and what they wanted from their leaders. On election night in 1980, as the early returns made clear that he had won a smashing victory over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, Reagan was asked what Americans saw in him, and he replied, "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I'm one of them? I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
Reagan had some special insights into leadership that have stood the test of time. "The job of the president is not to build consensus in Washington, but to build consensus in America, and then Washington will follow," says Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last White House chief of staff.
Other presidents have lost sight of this Reagan principle, including Barack Obama, who critics say has tried too often to make deals in Washington but hasn't paid enough attention to generating support outside the beltway. Obama may be learning the error of his ways, because he has started a campaign of outreach to everyday citizens by traveling outside D.C. and meeting more frequently with adversaries in Congress, just as Reagan did three decades ago.
Obama also is emphasizing the Reaganesque theme of optimism. His goal, similar to Reagan's, is to make Americans feel good about themselves, about their ability to control their fate, and about the country's future. This was evident in Obama's State of the Union address when he said, "The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, 'The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.' ...From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future." [See Obama's 5 best speeches of all time.]
Another Reagan approach was to set a clear direction for the country, such as standing up to communism, slowing the growth of government, and cutting taxes. He made compromises, but there was no doubt where he was headed, and Americans liked that. Historians say this is an area, clarity of direction, where Obama could show substantial improvement.
Finally, Reagan was a believer in American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is a "shining city upon a hill," serving as a global model in its values of liberty and the protection of individual rights, its commitment to democracy, and its use of capitalism as the engine of prosperity. Overall, Reagan was able to bolster the country's faith in itself during some tough times. And that might have been his greatest contribution of all.