Today marks the 99th birthday of Ronald Reagan. I was attending college at the time Reagan was elected. He was elected at a time when our economy was arguably every bit as bad, in some ways worse, than what we currently are experiencing. He brought sincere hope and had a deep belief in the greatness of America that was truly, at least to me, inspiring.
There are many things to admire about Ronald Reagan. His economic policies lead to the greatest period of economic growth America has ever known. He brought down the Soviet Union, the greatest threat to freedom ever known, without ever firing a shot. But that is not what I admire the most about Ronald Reagan. What I found most inspiring, and something I have tried to model in my life, is his humanness. He was no respecter of persons; in other words he treated everyone the same.
This story, as told by Bill Clark, is a great example and reminds me of a similar experience I had with another politician, related further down, almost 25 years ago.
Bill Clark was one the Ronald Reagan’s closest friends and advisers. His story is retold by Paul Kengor at NRO Online as follows:
At the time this happened, Clark was serving as Reagan’s national-security adviser. He had previously been deputy secretary of state, and would later be appointed secretary of the interior. His driver all this time was a man named Joe Bullock, a Georgia native who had moved to Washington during the Great Depression. Joe [being black] was a victim of the cruel Jim Crow laws that afflicted the South. He went to Washington for a better life.
Joe first found employment as a mule driver. He eventually began chauffeuring various senior people in the federal government, some of whom, including a high-level figure in the Carter administration, didn’t treat him well; in fact, that previous cabinet secretary didn’t speak a word to Joe in three years.
Thus, Joe was taken aback when Bill Clark not only talked to him, asking questions about his life and family, but also asked whether he could sit up front. Clark rode shotgun with Joe, drawing more than a few stares and safety concerns as well, since Clark, given his influence in national security, was a target of America’s enemies.
One morning, Clark’s father visited Washington. He hit it off with Joe. Clark’s father was a rancher, a man of the West. He gave Joe a gift: a Western-style belt, with a kind of “John Wayne belt buckle,” as Clark described it. Joe loved it, proudly displaying it by always leaving his blue suit-jacket unbuttoned.
That belt soon assumed a life of its own. A state visit by England’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip was upcoming, and protocol demanded that the White House provide gifts. Clark, Reagan, and a few others brainstormed following a morning briefing. For Philip, Clark suggested a “Western belt.” He had one in mind, made by Si Jenkins, a Santa Barbara friend of both Clark and the president. (Reagan, too, was a California rancher.)
“Well, what does it look like?” asked Reagan. Clark noted he had a model in the car: Joe, who was wearing the belt. “Send him up,” ordered the president. They called for Joe, who entered via the door of Reagan’s secretary.
Joe had worked for the federal government for half a century, but had never been within 50 yards of the Oval Office. He walked in. He saw Clark, Vice President Bush, the senior aides, and the president of the United States. He was in awe, overcome. Suddenly, this tough six-foot-four man began weeping: He had come so far since Jim Crow and the Great Depression. He was choked up.
No one in the room was prepared for that reaction. They were dead silent, uncomfortable, unable to respond — except for Ronald Reagan. The president rose, walked over to the driver, extended his hand, breathed in, and said matter-of-factly, “Mr. Bullock, I understand you have a belt to show me?”
It was an “everyman” touch. And it put old Joe immediately at ease. Business-like, Joe showed the belt, and then he and Reagan began swapping stories, chatting away like old friends.
“The rest of us just faded away,” said Bill Clark, “as the two got along famously.” President and driver, remembering the old days.
There have been times during my career where I have had the opportunity to spend time with Senators, Congressmen and Governors. It is pretty common for most politicians to be aloof, detached and even condescending. Others have a rather phony sincerity that, at least for me, is pretty easy to detect. I’ve always suspected that this is because they are not comfortable with who they are.
In my personal experience there was one exception; Mark Hatfield. At the time I met the Senator he was the chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. He was one of the 5 most powerful people in the U.S. Government and this was reflected in the office he occupied in Washington.
Several of us had arrived for a meeting and were waiting in the his conference room with a staff member. Senator Hatfield entered the room before his remaining staff arrived; very unusual in its own right. He apparently noticed that I had been looking over some documents hanging on the wall at the time he entered the room. After formal introductions were finished he took me over to tell me more about items on display all the while asking about my family and upbringing.
I had been intrigued by the bust of Herbert Hoover and the documents with his signature on them. My history wasn’t great but I did know that he was often blamed as the President that led the country into the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
The Senator explained that he admired President Hoovers agenda known as the Children’s Charter. The Charter focused on providing protections for all children, regardless of race or gender. After what was maybe all of 90 seconds we returned to the conference table. Like Reagan, it was a sincere everyman’s moment. Almost 25 years later I find myself wishing we had more leaders like Mark Hatfield and Ronald Reagan. We would be a better nation for it.
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