The Gipper Turns 100

Today would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.

Which got me thinking about how the District commemorates its presidents – this one in particular.

As a child of the Eighties, the first president I could remember was Reagan. In fact, seeing my mom watch the coverage of the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981 was the first time I learned what a president was.

Before I was politically aware, it was like having a kindly grandfather in the White House – similar to the Werther’s Original guy, except with jellybeans.

Of course, no president can be honored in Washington, D.C. without politics entering the equation, particularly an iconic Republican in a town that overwhelmingly votes Democratic.

On the occasion of the Reagan Centennial, the Washington Post does a great job of examining his complex legacy today – and even includes a nice trivia quiz.

There haven’t been any celebrations of his birthday in the District yet, but there are a few things in the works – including a cake-cutting at the National Archives (February 18, 1 PM in the Jefferson Room) and some as yet unspecified event at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

The history of the Reagan Building itself illustrates the political complications in deciding how and when to honor a president, especially one so fresh in political memory.

Reagan signed the bill that authorized the construction of the building, which was the realization of John Kennedy’s vision to improve that symbolic stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. A Republican Congress voted unanimously to name the building for Reagan in 1995.

But by the time it was finished, it was the second largest government office (after the Pentagon), and the cost overruns turned it into the most expensive federal building in U.S. history.

Sort of an ironic tribute to a president best known for decrying big government.

And then there’s the decision to add Ronald Reagan’s name to Washington National Airport, also pushed through by a Republican Congress.  In addition to being a mouthful, there was the extra government expense to change all the signage and maps.

Despite all the effort, most District residents (this one included) still call it National.

There have been countless other attempts to memorialize Reagan, most of them advanced by Grover Norquist’s Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. The group claims renaming National airport as its biggest achievement, and provides a handy interactive map to find the closest Reagan memorial near you (out of an estimated 107 in the U.S. and 13 abroad).

One idea that went nowhere fast was a 2005 proposal by a Texas Congressman to rename 16th Street – the historic and iconic road that runs into the White House – Ronald Reagan Boulevard.

The District government was not amused.

My favorite renaming actually came on an episode of the Simpsons, where a meeting of the Springfield Republicans suggested that the Mississippi River be called the Mississippi Reagan.

There have also been countless attempts to add Reagan’s smiling visage to our currency – the dime, half dollar, ten dollar, twenty dollar, and fifty dollar bills have all been bandied about.

One tribute that seemed devoid of politics was the naming of the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine at George Washington University Hospital.

The Emergency Department helped save Reagan’s life when he was brought there after being shot in front of the Washington Hilton – although before being wheeled into surgery, the president quipped to the doctors, “I hope you’re all good Republicans.”

My most vivid memory of Reagan actually comes from living in the District during his death in 2004. I remember watching the historic funeral procession going up Pennsylvania Avenue – and using my press badge to visit the Capitol to see his casket lying in state in the building’s Rotunda.

I was heading through a hallway into the Rotunda when I was momentarily stopped by security as they ushered a man past me.  They cleared the room so this one man could have a private moment with Reagan.

I watched in the wings as he approached and put his hand on the flag-draped casket, standing there for several moments in deep contemplation. He then turned and walked past me again as he left the room.

It was Mikhail Gorbachev.

I can’t think of a better tribute to the 40th president than that.

8 thoughts on “The Gipper Turns 100

    • I was remiss in not mentioning that a very important person shares the Gipper’s birthday – Keith Fleming! He looks much younger than 100 years though…he also informed me that Bob Marley and Babe Ruth share Reagan’s birthday, too…

    • Great question, Martin – it was something I never understood when I was younger, because it came from a character he played in his early movie career. Reagan played the Notre Dame University football player George “The Gipper” Gipp in the 1940 movie Knute Rockne, All American. Gipp died in 1920 from a throat infection at the age of 25, days after leading his team to a major win against rival Northwestern University. On his deathbed, he was supposed to have told his coach, Knute Rockne, to rally the team to “win just one for the Gipper.” Reagan delievered that emotional deathbed speech in the movie, and earned the nickname “The Gipper.” He later used it as a political slogan, most famously at the 1988 Republican National Convention, when he told his vice-president George H.W. Bush to “go out there and win one for the Gipper.” You have to admit, no matter what you think of Reagan, he also earned the nickname “master communicator.” Even Obama has tried to take some cues from him…

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