May 31, 2023

Great Lives’ 17th Season Kicks Off Jan. 21 with Ronald Reagan

The 17th season of the William B. Crawley Great Lives Lecture Series kicks off on Tuesday, Jan. 21, with a look at Ronald Reagan. Craig Shirley, author of “Rendezvous with Destiny: Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” will provide unique insight into the life of the 40th president and one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. The Virginia Partners Bank Lecture. 

This series is open to the public free of charge and no admission tickets are required. Programs begin at 7:30 p.m. in Dodd Auditorium in George Washington Hall. Each lecture concludes with an audience Q&A session with the speaker and a book-signing. Great Lives will continue on Jan. 23 with Tiger Woods biographer Jeff Benedict.

Forty years ago, few thought Reagan would be a great president, or even president at all. So much so that many, even from within his own party, sought to destroy his 1980 campaign from its earliest days. Make no mistake about it; the GOP establishment loathed Reagan, hated Reagan.

He’d tried in 1968, losing the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon. He narrowly lost to Gerald Ford in 1976. But by 1980, he was the marginal frontrunner for the nomination, but nearly lost to Ambassador George Bush. Reagan righted his campaign, got focused, and charged to the nomination, at long last.

Winning the 1980 GOP nomination, however, was only the first step. He then had to face the juggernaut of incumbent President Jimmy Carter. By common agreement, Carter was a mediocre president and was presiding over a poor economy and an even worse foreign policy — but as a fierce campaigner, he was without peer.

For most of the fall 1980 campaign, Carter maintained a lead over Reagan. Americans did not like to kick elected presidents out of office, only doing so in 1912 (which was anomalous with William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson all running) and 1932, when in the face of the terrible Great Depression, FDR defeated the hapless Herbert Hoover. Thus the odds were stacked against Reagan.

But in the one and only debate, in Cleveland, Reagan zinged Carter with his immortal line, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” One week later, Reagan won one of the largest landslide elections in history and in so doing, changed history.

The era of Reagan had begun. Without guile, without hatred, and without deception, Reaganism would prove to be the remedy America and the world needed forty years ago — but whose legacy still casts a long shadow over all of us.

Craig Shirley will analyze the Reagan Presidency and its legacy, including comparisons with Donald Trump.