Looking forward, looking back: Another Great Communicator shapes the views of a generation

Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009

They say that the person who was president when you were a kid -- 7 or 8 years old -- becomes the basis for what you picture the president to be for the rest of your life.

For me, that president is Ronald Reagan. I was in second grade when Reagan entered the White House, and his inauguration is part of my earliest political awareness. I also remember being selected to go to the school office for a special presentation over the PA system in conjunction with the inauguration, and dressing up nice in a sweet red, white and blue striped velour shirt with a huge collar, so take my recollections for what they're worth.

My son is now in second grade, and I can't help but wonder -- and be amazed by -- how different his perception of what a president looks like will be.

For all those differences, I see many parallels between the start of Reagan's presidency and the current state of the nation as President-elect Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration.

When President Reagan entered office in 1981, America was in the midst of a crisis in the Middle East -- in that case, a hostage crisis in Iran -- while at home, the economy was in shambles -- inflation was the culprit in the late 1970s and early 80s. America's self-esteem had taken a beating in the aftermath of an unpopular war -- Vietnam -- and global tensions were high as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Of all the things for which Reagan is credited, some experts say his greatest accomplishment was to restore the country's self-esteem; to make Americans proud of America again.

Obama faces the same challenge, and he does so while shouldering enormous the expectations not just of this country, but of the rest of the world. Whether Obama can live up to those expectations remains to be seen, but what gives me hope for the future is this: My son is growing up in a country where people still believe our leaders have the ability -- and the responsibility -- to make the world a better place. What he will see in a president is a person who inspires the people around him. Of all the parallels that can be drawn between Obama and past presidents, that one may just be the most important.

Around the country, and even here in Alaska, this presidential campaign has brought out the best in the election process. People turned out in record numbers to participate in the presidential caucuses last year. People had rallies and shared their opinions. The votes were counted, and power will now transfer peacefully from one president to the next.

Obama's presidency may or may not influence my children's political opinions when they are old enough to vote. But their first impression of our political system, that people can actively participate, that we have faith that our leaders can make a difference, certainly has been a good one.

Clarion city editor Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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