After agonizing for months over my choice in the GOP Presidential race in this 2016 election, I voted yesterday. For the first time since I cast my first vote almost 40 years ago, I felt a sense of loss and bewilderment as I left the polling place.
Forty years ago this month, I began my personal journey as a conservative. On a cold evening in February, 1976, a friend of mine and I—both in the second semester of our senior year of high school—attended a small gathering in Peoria, Illinois, where Ronald Reagan was speaking to a group comprised mostly of old friends from his high school and college days in Dixon and Eureka, Illinois.
I was not there that night by accident. Twice before, due to my parents’ political and social ties, I had personally engaged with the future President. The first time, which I only “remember” through the stories that my father later told, the then-Governor of California was so bored with the adults who were seeking his attention, that he left their company and spent the better part of an afternoon talking and laughing with a 10-year old boy who was oblivious to who he was, but who enjoyed and monopolized his company. The second time, a few years later, I spoke with him over the phone twice during calls he made to my mother to plan a retirement party for one of his college football teammates, and he genuinely seemed to care about how I was doing in school and what my own hopes and dreams were. It was because of these experiences, and the coaxing of my parents and my friend, that I took a break from home work on a winter night in 1976 to attend the meeting in Peoria.
Reagan spoke that night, not as a stilted candidate, but as a friend to those of us in the room, about his vision for the GOP and the country, as well as his strategy for the upcoming Illinois primary. And what I heard that night would start me on my own political journey—one I still travel today. Much of what he said that night would find its way into the 1976 GOP platform, and then into his blueprint for a “New Republican Party,” which he unveiled in early 1977.
It is hard to explain to someone who did not live through those years the state of the country at that time. Like others my age, I had grown-up watching the country seemingly unravel through the riots, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Soviet expansion, and it truly seemed like no one knew what to do or how to lead the country into the future. And yet, here was a man that exuded confidence and optimism about the future, and who seemed to deeply understand and love our country in a way I had never heard expressed. Though I would see him speak a few more times over the next decade, it would be what he said that night that changed everything for me.
I think the journalist and author, Theodore White, captured the predicament we faced in those years best in his two books: In Search of History and America in Search of Itself. At the end of the first book, written soon after the 1976 election, he saw a coming decision between
whether America would be transformed, in the name of Opportunity, simply into a Place, a gathering of discreetly defined and entitled groups, interests and heritages; or whether it could continue to be a nation, where all heritages joined under roof-ideas of communities within government.
Then, toward the end of the second book, published after the 1980 election, he made the following observation:
I write and close this book in a clouded time, not knowing whether it is twilight or dawn, an era ending or an era beginning. It is twilight if new policy carries us back to the old America, before its transformation; it is dawn if new policy carries us forward to release us from civil fear and the web of federal control. Somewhere, in the decades of upheaval, came a wrong turning. Another wrong turning could take politics away from traditional politicians and bring us convulsions in the streets.
For most of my adult life, I believed that—with Reagan’s guidance—we had come through the upheaval to start a revitalization of America based on the best of its principles, that the world had been made safe from totalitarianism through American leadership, and that a consensus had formed that “the era of big government was over.”
But then, we took another wrong turn that only now seems clear through our rear-view mirror. Through the tumultuous year of scandal and impeachment in 1998, the disputed election of 2000, 9/11, and the Iraq War, the new consensus broke apart to unearth grievances and ideas that we thought had been vanquished. Then, the responses to Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008 showed how fragile our resurrection from civil fear and federal control had been. And over these last 7 years, even after the election of our first African-American President, the unraveling of the consensus and the re-emergence of federal control exposed the consequence of our failure to fully assimilate all of our neighbors into our American community. Adding to all of this upheaval at home, the progress we made to form a better world through American leadership has crumbled, with Russia, China, North Korea, and a totalitarian faction of political Islam, each threatening world stability—and America.
Frankly, I believe we are more fractured at home and abroad today than at any time since Nixon left the White House, and there is no Reagan to help guide us out of this mess. Instead, we are left with candidates who either lack the understanding of America to lead, lack an appreciation of current problems to lead, lack the skills to lead, lack the vision to lead, lack the experience and maturity to lead, or lack the integrity to lead. In this vacuum has emerged a convulsion of political extremes, which is leading us toward a choice between an entertaining populist who wants to tear the “establishment” down and start over, and two varying degrees of socialists. As the late Yogi Berra might have said, we’ve reached the fork in the road and we have to take it.
So, as I left the polling place yesterday I truly felt as though we had lost what we had worked so hard to re-establish over these last 40 years, and I’m bewildered with the fork we will take this fall. I honestly don’t know in the short term where we will go from here, and I am concerned that things will get worse before they get better.
However, as I think back to that night 40 years ago, I still believe that eventually the answer will emerge and we will find the right road to take. But it won’t be behind the leadership of another Reagan—that moment is over. Instead, the leadership, when it emerges will come from the source of strength that Reagan believed in—individual Americans applying our shared principles. When and if we embrace each other and our shared principles again, and we find the courage to use them again to build a strong society of free people, this moment too shall pass.
I believe this will happen, because it must happen. As Reagan reminded President Ford and the delegates at the end of the 1976 Republican Convention, in the battle for our exceptional country and society “there is no substitute for victory.”