An Incidental, Oddly Enduring Acquaintance
During the 1968 election, when I was 14,1 became fascinated by politics. With my grandfather’s help, I began collecting political buttons from every presidential election in the twentieth century and quite a few in the nineteenth. I also collected ephemera from significant gubernatorial and congressional races.
So in 1971, when I heard that Ronald Reagan was giving a speech in Santa Barbara, my hometown, I gathered up all my Reagan buttons (plus a “Reagan Garter Girls” garter and a Reagan mirror) and drove to the hotel where he was speaking. Part of my enthusiasm for Reagan stemmed from his career before he entered politics. He had started as a sports announcer at a small radio station in’ rural Illinois, he’d been good enough as an actor to be a contender for the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca , and as head of the Screen Actors Guild he declined to name names in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Now he was governor of the nation’s largest state.
I was a bit awed at meeting Reagan, but he put me at ease immediately. I kept my collection of Reagan buttons in a special case my grandfather had given me, and Reagan was happy to autograph it. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, a photographer from the local newspaper took our picture, and the paper published it.
At the time the photo made me something of a social pariah. I was a junior at a high school made up almost exclusively of white, upper-middle-class kids, many of whom had taken part in a recent anti-war demonstration at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The demonstration had turned so violent that, the local Bank of America burned to the ground. My fellow students had little use for the right-wing governor who had called in a special riot squad to quell the disturbance, a move that resulted in the death of a student bystander. When the picture of Reagan and me ran in the local paper, many of my schoolmates assumed I was what they might have called a cryptofascist. It didn’t matter that I also had buttons for Eugene McCarthy and the Kennedys. Oddly, the moment captured in the photograph turned out to be the first of several times my life intersected, ever so tangentially, with that of our fortieth President.
Seven years later, when I was enrolled at Stanford Law School, my professor of legal economics and antitrust philosophized at length about the strengths and weaknesses of the free market system. His name was William F. Baxter, and we called his economic theories “Baxternomics.” He unabashedly opposed most forms of governmental oversight (“regulation”) of the markets. Three years later Reagan made him a key economic adviser. When I first heard the term Reaganomics , in 1981, it had a familiar ring.
At Stanford in the 1970s Professor Baxter preached that economics could win the Cold War without a single military casualty. All we had to do was buy every weapons system any general or admiral wanted and keep thinking up new systems to buy. Meanwhile, the Soviet generals and admirals would demand that their government keep pace. We could borrow to pay the billions or trillions the systems would cost, incurring a huge national debt but no human casualties. The Soviet economy was weaker than ours, and as they tried to keep pace, they would go so deeply into debt that they would eventually go bankrupt. Of course, Reagan, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and their military establishments followed Professor Baxter’s prescription to the letter.
But my strongest tie to Ronald Reagan was yet to come. In 1995 my father, still living in Santa Barbara, found out he had Alzheimer’s disease. At almost the same time, Reagan received the same diagnosis, and he moved to his ranch near the city. My mother joined several local Alzheimer’s support groups; Nancy Reagan became involved with some of the same ones. My mother was very proud to meet Mrs. Reagan; I distinctly remember her telling my father and me about one such encounter. My father appeared to listen to her, but his eyes remained vacant. He had no idea what his wife was saying, and she knew it. About 30 miles away, I realized, Nancy Reagan might well be enduring the same experience with her husband.
That night my mother and I looked at the photograph from 1971. I didn’t need to say anything. It occurred to both of us that Ronald and Nancy Reagan had gone on to become the most important people in the world, whereas my parents will never be mentioned in any history book. Yet the lives of my mother and Nancy Reagan, like those of their husbands, had become strangely similar. A passage from Thackeray’s novel Barry Lyndon came to mind: “It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. . . .”