Today Ronald Reagan would be 101 years old; he was born in the same era as my father, and like my father, his intellect, values, and worldview were shaped by the defining events of the 20th century. Those were terrible, daunting times, as America lurched from crisis to crisis — World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the economic stagnation of the 1980s. America’s very identity seemed to be on trial, yet I question how much of this is understood by today’s young adults.
According to surveys by The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report, 25 percent of America’s young adults don’t know who Adolf Hitler was. About the same percentage can’t place the president as the leader of the executive branch of our federal government. An appalling 70 percent could not identify the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
When I wrote the novel “Forrest Gump” 25 years ago, I decided to take Forrest on a romp through history, beginning in the 1960s, not because I wanted to instruct people about such incidents as the Vietnam War, the opening of China to the West, or, for that matter, President Lyndon Johnson showing off his operation scar in the Rose Garden for the White House press corps. Rather, I did it because these events provided a perfect foil for Gump’s character.
But after the movie came out, I found that a great many young people, while they enjoyed the film, didn’t seem to grasp the historical circumstances that inspired it. That was why I jumped at the chance to tell the story of Ronald Reagan, who not only lived through the most exciting times in America since the Civil War, but became a major player in them.
Reagan grew up impoverished in small-town Illinois but never knew he was poor until he got to college. He toughed it out in football until he became a first-stringer in high school, and at the height of the Depression was a star player who put himself through college on an athletic scholarship.
He became a prominent sportscaster in the Midwest, which led to a successful Hollywood acting career. As a member of the Actor’s Guild he discovered, and quelled, a communist takeover of his union, which caused him to become an implacable foe of Marxism everywhere. In the midst of this, Reagan — a lifelong Democrat — became a Republican, famously saying, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me.”
As his acting career came to a close, he became a successful two-term governor of California, and in 1980 was elected president of the United States in the midst of a grievous economic downturn. He was nearly killed in an assassination attempt, broke an illegal strike by air traffic controllers that threatened to strangle the nation, revived the economy by lowering taxes, and, between bluffs and the dint of his unbending will, became arguably the foremost figure responsible for the end of the Cold War and the downfall of Soviet communism. Because of these things, and because of his consistently sunny disposition, Reagan has become an icon to Republicans, much like John F. Kennedy is to Democrats.
Portraying all this to young people presented a challenge — or at least it did to me. Most young adults probably have only the vaguest notions of communism, or the Depression, or even World War II. How could I tell them about these things in a way they could understand and enjoy?
At length I decided to rely on my old standby, which is: “Just tell the story as if you were saying it to companions around a campfire — in this case, 14- to 17-year-olds.
A few digressions were necessary as I ran through the great political debates and events of the 20th century — but lo and behold, when I was finished I realized that just as I had used history to illuminate Forrest Gump’s character, Reagan’s life illuminated much of the important history of the 20th century. Like Forrest, Reagan had not only lived through great events, he had participated in them.
I have met most of the presidents since John F. Kennedy, either as a Washington journalist or otherwise, and regret that Ronald Reagan was not among them. I think that he would have been the most interesting of them all; he had a fine, insightful intellect; a compassionate, genuinely decent character; and he “walked with kings, but never lost the common touch.” He was an American hero — and one who needs to be reintroduced to today’s young adults so that they, like us older folks, can take inspiration from his truly remarkable life and accomplishments.
Winston Groom is the author of sixteen books, most recently Ronald Reagan Our 40th President. His other books include Forrest Gump, Kearny’s March, Shrouds of Glory, Vicksburg: 1863, and Conversations with the Enemy, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He lives with his wife and daughter in Point Clear, Alabama.