Ronald Reagan wasn't really my uncle. He was, however, the greatest president of my lifetime and the only man under God whom I didn't really know but truly loved as if he were a family member.
My parents were born in the same decade as Reagan and of the same history that forged their similar characters. Like Reagan, they were FDR Democrats who reluctantly came to accept that their party and its political values failed them. In the 1950s, my parents became Republicans and embraced the new conservative movement articulated by William F. Buckley.
I was born and raised in California where Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were colossal figures of immeasurable influence. As a young child, my mother took me to meet Nixon at the Van Nuys Airport when we lived in the San Fernando Valley during his unsuccessful 1962 gubernatorial campaign. My parents wanted to believe that Nixon was conservative, but he disappointed them repeatedly.
In 1964, we moved to famously conservative Orange County. That year Reagan officially entered politics when he campaigned passionately for his friend Barry Goldwater. My parents had Goldwater campaign buttons and a Barry bobblehead doll. Here is Reagan's legendary speech for Goldwater in which he established himself as a conservative heavyweight, "A Time for Choosing."
My mother had observed and admired Reagan's parallel path from liberalism to conservatism. She was a stay-at-home mom, a political news junkie who routinely talked back to the liberal radio and TV commentators. I started reading her National Review magazines before the 1964 election, always with a dictionary at my side, but Reagan communicated the same principles in language that an 8-year-old could more easily comprehend. During the Goldwater campaign, Ronald Reagan became more than an actor to us. Always the smart aleck, I started calling him Uncle Ronnie because there were more pictures of Reagan adorning the walls and furniture of our new home in Westminster than of family members. When he decided to run for governor, it was a turning point in Republican politics, in American history, and in my life.
On a stereotypically sunny and warm California day in 1966, Ronald Reagan had a campaign bus stop in front of a shopping center in Garden Grove a mere 3 miles from our house. There my parents got to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to them. He flashed that perennially optimistic smile and patted me on the shoulder in passing. Later that afternoon, we joined thousands of supporters at a rally featuring Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer Jr., aka the Clampett family from TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies." The rally was held at Santa Ana Stadium, which is adjacent to the Orange County courthouse that was renamed in Reagan's honor in 1992.
I turned 18 shortly after Nixon resigned and it was a devastating time for a young Republican. That year I volunteered in a Congressional campaign for a former POW whose bracelet I had worn throughout my teenage years. The candidate had been rushed into politics before he was ready and while he was still dealing with personal trauma from Vietnam. As a candidate, he was MIA and the local pols were not always kind to him. But for the heartening example furnished by Reagan, my naïveté about the idealism of politics would have hardened into cynicism.
In 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, I cast my first presidential vote for Uncle Ronnie in the California primary. That August Mom and I were glued to the Republican convention, hoping against hope that Reagan would emerge triumphant as the GOP nominee. As in 2008, it was painfully obvious in 1976 that a moderate Republican would lose to a Democrat who offered little but personal assurances and the result would be a national and international calamity.
During the disastrous Carter years, Reagan honed his message through radio commentaries in which he displayed his deep understanding of economics and world affairs. He also enjoyed dabbling in show business on his own terms. Here he displays his irrepressible wit and gift for public speaking at a Dean Martin TV roast of George Burns.
More often than not, I vote with one hand while holding my nose with the other. But my 5 votes for Uncle Ronnie as presidential candidate and nominee were a privilege and an honor. Once elected, Reagan did not always act as I expected or preferred. But I trusted him and the unprecedented success of his record defends itself. After two terms as leader of the free world, he left it more prosperous and peaceful than he found it. His implementation of tax rate reductions became such a national fixture that not even the Obama era Democrat majority dared to undo them. His dedication to individual liberty and unshaken faith in American exceptionalism dominate his unique legacy. His alliance with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II freed millions of hostages from communism and socialism without a single bullet being fired.
My only child Christopher was born in 1983 and I would have named him Reagan had I not been inspired by an even higher authority. During the 8 years of the Reagan presidency, it was an exhilarating time for this young conservative woman to be alive. My most severe disappointment is that, in George H.W. Bush, Reagan selected a successor who was not a keeper of the flame. Neither Bush nor any of the GOP presidential nominees since 1992 has been a genuine Reagan conservative. None defended Reagan when Democrat opponents made outrageously false claims about his record.
Ever since Uncle Ronnie retired to his California ranch, conservatives have searched in vain for The New Reagan as though the experiences of his lifetime that forged his character can be duplicated. When I remember my dear mother and father, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, I know we will never see their like again. Reagan remained humble, gracious and wise throughout his public life. He said in one of my favorite quotes, "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
Conservative values endure and are making a comeback in the wake of spectacular liberal failure. Today conservatism has its best opportunity to revolutionize the world since the Reagan era successes. But it will take a more enduring commitment from the political class than words of tribute on the occasion of Uncle Ronnie's 100th birthday.