Sometimes the world presents an odd confluence of events. On Sunday millions watched as the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers duked it out for the opportunity to crown themselves champions of the football world. Yet the 100th anniversary of the birth of a champion of the political world didn’t pass unnoticed, as a grand tribute to Ronald Reagan was presented just before the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLV.
There’s no question that President Reagan left a lasting legacy, and fortune continually smiled on him even in death. (What other president has had the good fortune of having his 100th birthday coincide with a sporting event that attracts the rapt attention of millions?) However, the Reagan centennial celebration has extended far beyond a simple three-minute tribute film as Republicans everywhere commemorate the milestone. For example, many local GOP organizations have already made the move to add Reagan’s name to their traditional Lincoln Day dinners.
It’s also worth noting that, since President Reagan took office in 1981, a century had passed since four other presidents were born: Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1982, Harry Truman in 1984, Dwight Eisenhower in 1990, and Lyndon Johnson in 2008. Yet none of these men had any sort of large-scale celebrations of the centennial of their birth, even though all accomplished some great or noteworthy feats during their terms in the Oval Office. (Whether their feats were great or simply noteworthy obviously depends on the eye of the beholder.)
Instead, we reserved this reverence only for the life and legacy of our fortieth president, and it’s not very likely we’ll again see this sort of festivity over a president’s centennial anytime soon. Next in line would be Richard Nixon on January 9, 2013, followed later that year by Gerald Ford on July 14th. Still further in the future are both George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in 2024, then George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 2046. (For President Obama we have to wait until 2061.)
Now I left one president out of this timeline, and this was intentional. Ronald Reagan was but a lad of six when John F. Kennedy was born. He had only recently joined the Republican Party when Kennedy was shot. At that point a career in public office was still a few years in Reagan’s future. And while both are inexorably linked through their advocacy of tax cuts to grow the economy, I believe it’s likely that it will be only a media-driven push in the next few years to celebrate the centennial of JFK’s birth in 2017. Whether it’s in order to balance out the attention paid to the century of Ronald Reagan or to promote a stalwart of the Democratic legacy is immaterial. Bringing the Kennedy celebration up to Reagan’s benchmark will be more difficult for a number of reasons.
First of all, the number of Americans who lived through and remember the Kennedy era is far smaller than those who fondly recall Ronald Reagan, because many of those Baby Boomers who spent their early adulthood years living in the prosperous 1980s were small children at the time of Kennedy’s assassination. Their memories of JFK come mostly from the Zapruder film and well-burnished media replays of the Camelot era.
As far as those items Kennedy accomplished, aside from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and perhaps the Peace Corps, there’s little of historical note to survive from his era. Most of Kennedy’s work has been erased by nearly a half-century of developments, not to mention the foibles of the surviving Kennedy family. Had JFK lived to see the 1964 campaign, the jury is still out on whether he would have retained office — part of the reason for the fateful trip to Texas was a worry about whether he could carry the state in the upcoming election. (Twenty years later, Texas was one of the 49 states that resoundingly voted President Reagan back into office.)
In the wake of his untimely demise, President Kennedy’s funeral was galvanizing because a grieving nation honored a leader recently and unexpectedly snuffed out in the prime of his life. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan’s funeral attracted thousands of mourners for a different reason. It wasn’t like we weren’t aware that his days would be numbered once he announced his affliction with Alzheimer’s disease. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote to us. But once the day came, as we knew it would, the world was still shocked that a great man had passed. And unlike those who will happen to have the centennial date of their birth come to pass in the future, Ronald Reagan created a standard that his successors haven’t been able to surpass.
This is the reason that February 6, 2011, turned out to be a day of celebration while, for the others, the century mark of their birth will be just another day on the calendar. Republicans — and, more recently, President Obama — still attempt to live up to the perception we had of Reagan as a leader.
But none have pulled it off because there was only one Ronald Reagan, and a man like him may well only come once in a century. It’s up to us to remember the lessons he taught us about the great nation America can be, and we honor Ronald Reagan best and most completely by continually striving to make our republic that shining city on a hill.