The Young Reagan

Back in my undergrad days, I wrote a paper about Ronald Reagan.  Say what you want about Reagan, or any politician: when they were kids, their politics didn’t exist, and some of the things they learned during those times have great value to people of every stripe, of every age.

As part of my research, I read his autobio, and I found this little nugget that’s been coming to mind a lot lately.

When Ronald was just a child, he was frequently followed home from school by an older kid who would beat him up.  Like that famous sequence in A Christmas Story, the young Reagan quickly learned to run as soon as he caught sight of his tormentor.  He would literally go running home to his mommy: once he got closed the gate of his front yard behind him, he would be safe. Some days, Ronald got away.  Other days, the bully caught him and worked him over.

Of course, Mommy Reagan realized that her boy’s solution wasn’t sustainable in the long term.  They weren’t a well-off family, and it was a very different era in American history which switching schools or taking the bus weren’t options.

So, one day, little Ronald came running down the street, the bully hot on his heels, only to find his mother standing in front of the gate.  He was stunned to hear her say “No, Ronald, I’m sorry, you can’t come home.”

“What?” he said, starting to cry.

“No, Ronald,” she said.  “I’m not letting you back in the house until you stand up to him.  I can’t do this for you.”

By this time, the bully was just about there.  And this is the image that stands out in my mind:  little Ronald Reagan turned around to face his tormentor, and with tears running down his face, shaking with sheer terror, this wimpy little kid, who to this point had never gotten into a fight or fought back for himself, put up his fists, boxer-style, and took his chances…and won.  The bully left him alone after that.

Of course, autobiographies are funny things, especially when written by men of Reagan’s then-age with Reagan’s famous affliction.  And the applicability of the story to political decisions is spurious at best.

But even if it didn’t really happen, that image is something, isn’t it?  No brave, solemn expression, no swagger, no fancy Crouching Tiger poses to make your enemy crap his pants.  Just a scared, near-sighted little kid shaking in his boots and weeping openly as he puts up his fists and lets a bully know what’s what.

Damn, if I could be brave enough to show that kind of vulnerability…I’d be invincible.


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