Sunday marked Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. While many popular national commentators have rehashed his presidential legacy, few know of his relationship to Yale. The Gipper came to the University as a Chubb fellow in December of 1967. Then-Governor of California, he guest lectured in classes, addressed the Yale Political Union and attended a series of meet-and-greets with students. Forty-three years later, the ideas he expressed and the manner in which he did so remain relevant today. This campus can still benefit from Reagan’s grace, foresight and civility.
The governor faced a hostile New Haven in 1967. Students circulated petitions against his visit, and questions during his lectures were less-than-complimentary. In a liberal-dominated environment, Reagan was fast becoming the nation’s leading conservative. He could have been confrontational in the face of widespread opposition to his four-day visit. Instead — as was his character — the Gipper showed humor and grace, which diffused the tension and opened a door for dialogue. For instance, when asked his opinion on the controversy surrounding his visit, Reagan remarked that he favored “civil rights, even for governors.”
While he defended controversial positions (including increased bombing in Vietnam), Reagan did not let his party allegiances impede conversation with the other side. Through artful jokes and self-deprecating quips, the Gipper created common ground out of which grew more serious discussion. In today’s polarized environment, we can all learn from Reagan: Don’t take yourself too seriously, have a laugh and let the conversation flow. In short: Channel the Great Communicator.
During the course of his Yale visit, Reagan remarked that a liberal frames the debate over social programs in a way such that “anyone who opposes his plan opposes his goal as well.” This tendency still exists. Supporters of the health care legislation often say that Obamacare’s opponents want to throw grandma under the bus, while those favoring redistributive policies say that disagreement is tantamount to hating the poor. Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that many on the right genuinely care about those in need but disagree that liberal programs create prosperity and equal opportunity. Accepting the disingenuous myth that “the right doesn’t care” only adds to the partisan rancor and incivility in American politics. Consequently, the second lesson Reagan taught: Don’t demean conservatives. They too have hearts.
On his final night in New Haven, the Governor addressed a packed crowd in the Law School Auditorium. He began his speech with a simple question: “How real and how good can change be?” Today, disappointed Obama supporters bemoan the President’s failure to implement promises from the 2008 campaign. That election season’s slogan of “change” led many young voters to giddy optimism. Here, they believed, was a transformative, post-partisan leader who would reshape America for a new generation.
Reagan’s astute questions remains relevant four decades later. Politicians who promise quick change rarely deliver. They can damage the country, with long-term repercussions. Slow change is best for a democratic society because time adds wisdom to popular haste. Forty-three years ago, the future 40th president predicted America’s disappointment in Obama’s overpromising.
The Yale crowd gave the Gipper a standing ovation on that final night in 1967, not because they agreed with his views, but because of how he expressed them. He injected intellectual diversity into the university, presenting himself not as an ideologue, but as a thinker. He transcended political difference to reach his audience with openness and good will.
Though President Reagan passed away six years ago, his legacy still lives. He taught this nation (and this campus) important lessons. Through humor and civility, he created space for dialogue across party lines. He dispelled the myth of the heartless conservative and reclaimed traditional principles for American politics. Reagan’s words and manner remain timeless today, as we face anger and instability, at home and abroad.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.