February 6, 2011, was the 100th anniversary of former actor, governor, and president Ronald Reagan’s birth. We are now engaged in a yearlong remembrance of the cheerfulness and optimism he brought to the White House. His nostalgic memory of late 19th century America when it seemed that everyone could be a millionaire was just what many voters wanted to hear. He reminded them of a time before the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and gasoline shortages. Many of us have other special memories of the Reagan Era.
Many in the current Fox-Republican-TEA Party advocate destroying the U. S. Department of Education. However, in 1986-87, under Secretary William Bennett, that department scoured the nation in search of high schools that might have something close to ideal curricula. The school where I taught during the eighties was Xavier Prep in New Orleans, and the Prep was one of thousands evaluated by Bennett’s department.
On visitation day, one of Bennett’s agents sat in on my honors’ U. S. history class. I never deviated from my normal routine whenever visitors or evaluators showed up. (In the early 1970s, North Central Accreditation representatives visited the Arkansas public high school in Helena-West Helena where I taught for four years. My students wanted to know why I was their only teacher who was teaching the same way as he or she normally did.) The day before, my students had taken a 55-minute unit test which consisted of multiple choice, matching, short answer, and essay questions. On that day, as usual, I returned their graded tests and devoted the entire 55-minute class to going over each and every question.
My visitor expressed amazement at my grading all those papers in one night and getting them back to the students so quickly, but I always considered that to be essential before moving on to a new topic. He also asked me to provide him with copies of that and previous tests so that he could take them back to Washington. That was essentially my meager contribution to what was a school-wide effort to demonstrate what we did for our students.
Eventually, five or six schools were each recognized for having an outstanding curriculum, and Xavier Prep was one of them. Each of the honored schools was invited to send a representative to Washington for a luncheon in the White House with President Reagan. The Prep had been founded by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as an all-black college prep school, and it had evolved into an all-girls school. Appropriately a Black English teacher, Carolyn Oubre, represented the school at the luncheon. What follows is how she described her experience.
Sec. Bennett met with the teachers before Reagan’s appearance and laid out some basic ground rules. He told them if they had a chance to speak to the president whatever they had to say should be in the form of a story – that way the president would be able to follow them much better. He also asked them not to “get technical” on anything.
Ms. Oubre got to sit next to the president. A Hispanic teacher sat across from them next to Mr. Bennett. This arrangement was understandable because it was probably a conscious attempt to counter Mr. Reagan’s negative relationship with minorities in general and Blacks in particular. The president opposed the creation of Martin Luther King Day; he deliberately began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered; and his trickle-down economic policies had been designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class – especially hurt were minorities, family farmers, and union members.
Howard Baker, the president’s chief of staff, was also there. Mr. Baker had been brought in to create order after Reagan’s presidency virtually collapsed under the weight of the Iran-Contra Scandal. To do so, Mr. Baker resigned a long-held, safe Senate seat and also decided to forgo his own plans to run for president in 1988. He promised that he would never write a tell-all book about how bad things were in the White House, which the president’s other chiefs of staff had done – former Chief of Staff Donald Regan spilled the beans about Nancy and the president’s reliance on an astrologer to arrange Reagan’s calendar. Mr. Baker has kept his word, and his selfless stint at the White House was his finest hour as a public servant. I’ve always given him credit for getting us through the last years of the Reagan Era.
Ms. Oubre found that Mr. Reagan’s reputation for having a poor memory was not entirely correct. You may recall that the president was not pursued for impeachment by the Congress or the special prosecutor for the Iran-Contra crimes because it was believed that Reagan couldn’t remember the details and/or never really understand the unconstitutional nature of the actions he authorized. Carolyn talked to him about his movies and found that his long-term memory was excellent. With enthusiasm and without hesitation, he named directors and actors with whom he had worked .
The president eventually asked her what she taught. Upon learning that she was an English teacher, he suggested that English must be the easiest language in the world to learn. Carolyn heard Mr. Baker “chuckle” and watched Mr. Bennett immediately look down at his plate and begin to shovel food into his mouth. Since English is acknowledged as one of the most difficult languages to master, she asked the president why he thought that. He explained that whenever he watched a foreign movie, a short English subtitle always summed up the long, drawn out dialogue of the other language.
Not long after that, something scary happened. The president began to shake uncontrollably and appeared to be falling apart. Ms. Oubre became alarmed, and very quickly someone on the president’s staff came behind the president and spoke to him over his shoulder: “Sir, it’s time for you to see that gentleman.” Somewhat befuddled, Mr. Reagan responded, “Whatever you say.” Two staff members held his arms and escorted him from the room. Within a short time, the president returned without assistance, as jovial and gracious as before. Carolyn was relieved but never learned the cause of the sudden spell.
When Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimer’s on June 5, 2004, I recalled my fondness for Reagan when was the host and occasional star of “General Electric Theater,” a CBS anthology series. He had that pleasant voice, that winning smile, and that “awe-shucks” likeability. When he carried those traits into the White House, many voters connected with his carefree style. No matter what was actually happening, he made them believe that it truly was “morning in America” again. His rose-tinted view of our Gilded Age past is even more popular today.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 25, 2011, in the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column.