Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ronald Reagan vs College Students, 1967

Randall Stephens

"NEW HAVEN, Dec. 4 [1967]--Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, who said he had never taught anything before except swimming and Sunday school, sat on a desk at Yale University today and conducted a class in American history." So reported the New York Times on the Gipper's visit to the ivy, where he was met with student protests and plenty of probing questions (December 6, 1967).

"Should homosexuals be barred from holding public office?" a senior from LA asked. The governor was surprised by the question. Rumors had been swirling that his administration had fired two staff members after their sexual preferences came to light. "It's a tragic
illness," said Reagan, after a pause. And, yes, he did think that homosexuality should remain illegal. Some students earlier had demanded that the school rescind its invitation to Reagan. The governor, who visited Yale as a Chubb fellow, gave his $500 honorarium to charity.

The confrontation between the 56-year-old governor and Yale students in 1967 speaks to the culture wars that roiled the decade and continue to reverberate to this day. In the video embedded here the students, with haircuts that make them look like clones of Rob from My Three Sons, square off with Reagan on poverty, race, and Vietnam.

The commemoration of the one-hundredth birthday of the 40th president brought with it the usual fanfare of radio specials, documentaries, guest editorials, and the like. The new HBO doc
Reagan, like PBS's American experience bio, spans the actor-turned-politician's career. (Watch the latter in full here.)

Lost in the telling, sometimes, is the scrappy, intensely ideological cold and cultural warrior from the 1960s and early 1970s. To correct that a bit, see the governor go at it with the somewhat nervous Yalies. Or, observe him lashing out against that "mess in Berkeley." (A clip from the HBO doc showing the governor dress down Berkeley administrators shows that pretty well.) The public memory version--rosy-cheeked, avuncular, sunny--overshadows that more fiery aspect of his personality and politics.

Americans remember their leaders as they choose. (The myths and legends are as stubborn as a Missouri mule.) But it is good to remind ourselves that the politicians and public figures we revere and/or study are rarely as one-dimensional as we'd sometimes think they are.

1 comment:

hcr said...

Randall: I'm so glad you posted this. When I lived in London in 1990-1991, I heard a BBC interview with Reagan about his hatred of the Berkeley protesters. It was bizarre. He insisted that the protest leaders were quietly circling back through the crowd to get instructions from KGB officers in black cars at the rear of the protests. The BBC interviewer kept trying to get him to back away from the claim that the USSR was behind the campus revolts, but he stuck to his guns.

Reminded me of Rovere's Time of Illusion about Nixon. And it was one of the things that made me think I'd better study the relationship between image and reality in American politics.