Reagan: Exit of an American hero

By Pat Utomi

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

 I CHANCED upon breaking news last Saturday. It was the announcement of the passing away of the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan. Nostalgia surged up my whole being. In many ways my love-hate relationship with the Reagan legacy had impacted remarkably on my worldview. Few can imagine how many lessons I have learnt from the life of this President whose 1980 campaign cost me a television set I knocked over in anger but whose disposition I came to admire as President.

In spite of whatever popular comments may make acceptable I have remained unapologetic through the years of how much my American experience has affected me. It is such that I often say that my story can be summarised as "A Nigerian life, an American Journey and a Global Consciousness". The American journey aspect, four years of graduate study traversed the Carter and Reagan era. They were the years in which how I saw the world took concrete form and the Reagan legacy rubbed off on me.

I have been very forthcoming on the heroes that shaped my views, the role models that were the exemplars on which I constructed my path. They were primarily American. Ronald Reagan was not one of them. But he brought one of them to Washington. Perhaps because my academic focus at the time was in Public Finance and Budgeting, the 33-year-old Director of Budget Reagan named in 1981, was an instant hit with me. David Stockman would later leave the Reagan administration and write about the "Triumph of Politics" but he left enough of an impression on me that I dreamt in those days of being a Nigerian David Stockman.

Along with George F. Will and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Stockman made up the trinity of American persons around which I would model my life. Clearly the prime role model for me was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the intellectual in public life, to borrow the title of Robert Katzman's recent book on the American legend who Newsweek Magazine editors called the Greatest Living American before his recent demise. Still Reagan affected me in significant ways.

As candidate for the US Presidency Reagan did not manage to attract me as one of his fans. His Republican rival who called his policy ideas voodoo economics, appealed more to me. But it was not George Bush, who would become his Vice-President that I favoured. I supported the incumbent President Jimmy Carter. After Reagan's victory I enjoyed good laughs as a humorous visually challenged, American classmate, made jokes like, McDonald has moved to the White House... right wings and (something not fit to print which refers to a part of the chicken's anatomy from which waste exits).

But Reagan grew on me. One afternoon while in my apartment working on my dissertation I had the radio on and suddenly Paul Harvey's harangue was interrupted by breaking news. The President had been shot. The paradox of his jovial nature, "darling I forgot to duck" as he said to First Lady Nancy Reagan, and his hope that the Doctors struggling to save his life were Republicans, brought out something I could relate to, his humanity. The ultimate Reagan effect on me, however, lay not in these domains, but in his strength of conviction, and how he had fun doing his work.

The persistence and passion with which Reagan pursued his vision of the world, like it or not, was for me a great example. It would influence my way. As I reflected on the Reagan legacy, this part of him and its effect on me was brought into sharp relief by a point made by another US President, Thomas Jefferson. "In matters of fashion swim with the current. In matters of conscience, stands like a rock".

I would come to add to that statement the fact that when a rock stands in your way, act like the stream, with tireless perseverance it wears down the rock. Again, I learnt from Reagan that you can have fun working hard as E B White put it. "I wake up every morning determined both to change the world and also have a one hell of a good time. Sometimes that makes planning the day a little difficult".

I have had a few difficult to plan days but thanks to being able to see Reagan beyond the stereotypes of the "cowboy" who rode roughshod over the New International Economic Order and the North-South dialogue at Cancun in Mexico, I have learnt to persist on matters of conscience and to do those things I enjoy such that much of my work is more or less play.

It is not all who are at ease with the American way of being

self-assertive. Some even think of it as self-promotion. With a personality shortcoming of being basically shy and a core personal preference for the simple, detached life, I have found the lessons of the passionate commitment to promoting one's ideals which I have taken from my American heroes, quite a liberating phenomenon. I am therefore always grateful for my American journey and to those who symbolise that way. Few did so better than President Ronald Reagan. A tribute to him is a debt I owe. It is a debt for the persona that I believe has flavoured the person inside, and allowed me to manage the ironies of my circumstance, a person who does not take himself seriously but takes his work very seriously.

I learnt much also about delegation from watching Reagan operate as President. This is why I assert often that I am a big picture person unwilling to manage again. For these, and many more, I bid a Nigerian burial farewell to the US President with whom I shared a birthday. No we were not born the same day, just February 6 of different years. That would be a Reagan kind of joke.

Outside my personal lessons, the Reagan legacy was phenomenal in ways opponents do not often acknowledge. Most will recall his contributions to bringing about the demise of the Soviet Union and improving East-West relations but I prefer to remember the man who was elected at a time of much self-doubt in America and its declining economic competitiveness. He restored America's confidence in itself and beginning with the competitiveness commission and such incentives as the Baldridge award, named for then Commerce Secretary Malcolm Balridge, got the quality of U.S products, which had paled in comparison with Japanese products, on the ascendance. When he became President, the average college senior was much engaged in the ritual of preparing CVs for the job hunt. By the end of the Reagan years, the average senior was working on his business plan and dreaming of being a billionaire come that initial public offering (IPO) before his 26th birthday.

Some have been very critical of this age of greed. A book peering at me from my shelf, as I write, an edited volume from Nicolaus Mills, Culture in the Age of Money is in that tradition. But that spirit which Reagan brought, gave new life to American capitalism, and an enhanced quality of life for both the poor and the rich. He had his failings though. Those who charged that his supply side economics gave Arthur Laffer room to elevate his ideas beyond the limits of the Laffar curve to a religion, would quickly point to the huge deficits and state of National Debt that was his legacy.

The judgment of history is still out. One thing is certain though, Reagan was an American hero and affected his times no matter where on the planet you pitched your tent.

 Professor Utomi is with the Lagos Business School


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