In the 1985 movie Back to the Future, the main character, played by Michael J. Fox, accidentally goes back to 1955. When Doc (Christopher Lloyd) finds out he’s from 1985, he asks who’s president then. Fox replies simply, “Ronald Reagan.”
“Oh, sure,” his Eisenhower-era interlocutor replies, “who’s vice president, Jerry Lewis?”
It’s a funny line, of course, but what makes it funny is that the ascent of Ronald Reagan from has-been, second-tier actor to president, inconceivable in 1955, still seemed so improbable in 1985. His current status, increasingly acknowledged even by liberals, as one of a handful of great presidents was even more improbable.
His career, to be sure, was an unusual path to the White House. Most presidents were politicians effectively their entire careers. Several (Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Garfield, and Eisenhower) were generals. A couple were engineers (Hoover and Carter — not exactly a ringing endorsement for electing engineers president). But an actor? They just give voice to other people’s words, they don’t think for themselves. As Oscar Hammerstein explained: “When the authors have me say/Words that make me wittier,/I am just as smart as they./And what’s more I’m prettier.” The liberal establishment had a field day pronouncing Reagan stupid. (Of course, to the postwar liberal establishment, all Republican presidents have been stupid except Nixon. He was evil.)
But Ronald Reagan ignored the cognoscenti, a pretty smart thing to do, and went with the people, who increasingly liked and trusted him. In 1966 he beat a popular, two-term governor to become governor of California. In 1976 he very nearly beat an incumbent for the Republican nomination for president. In 1980 he demolished an incumbent in the single debate (“Well, there he goes again”) and went on to win the White House in a landslide. In 1984 he won an even bigger landslide, coming up only a few votes short in Minnesota of carrying all 50 states.
And now, on his hundredth birthday, he is almost universally regarded as “Rushmore ready.” I sincerely hope we never add to the heads on Mt. Rushmore, but if we do, the obvious candidates are Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.