Given the dire state of the economy facing Ronald Reagan when he assumed the Presidency, it would have been understandable had he focused exclusively on those challenges. But he came to office with a broad agenda, and there were many important problems to solve. One that was of particular importance to the President was the how well the government served the people. He firmly believed that the government should work for the people, not the other way around. Governor and then President Reagan thought of the people as his boss, who, by electing him, had hired him to do the job. Throughout his career, Ronald Reagan was fond of telling true stories about the illogical and often mind-boggling – not to mention exasperating – inefficiency of the Federal bureaucracy. Although he did so with a smile, underlying the story-telling was a deep frustration. He vowed that if he ever had an opportunity to do something about it, he would. And he did. Not only did his Administration reduce the burden of excessive, redundant and unnecessary paperwork on businesses working with the government, it made changes that affected real people on a daily basis. When President Reagan took office, it took seven weeks to get a Social Security card and 43 days to get a passport. By the time he left, either one – or both – could be had in just 10 days.
As much as he used his own passport over the years, and as exotic and exciting as some of his foreign trips were, Ronald Reagan always looked forward to coming home. He genuinely loved America. From his beloved California to the New York Island, he was in awe of our country’s sheer beauty. Spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesties, oceans white with foam were not just words to him. It was how he saw America. He believed he had a special responsibility to protect the country’s environment and to preserve its natural beauty. President Reagan did more than just talk about it. The Reagan Administration was the first to establish a special unit at the Department of Justice to prosecute criminal polluters.
Polluters were not the only criminals who President Reagan intended to put out of business. Keeping people safe was always a top-of-agenda item for the Reagan Administration. It took a while, but in 1984, Congress passed the President’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which kept dangerous people behind bars, restricted the use of the insanity defense, reviewed Federal sentencing guidelines and toughened penalties for drug dealers and others. That same year, the President signed another very significant piece of legislation which made child pornography a separate criminal offense. The effect of the President’s work to prevent crime and put criminals where they belonged was dramatic. Nearly 2 million fewer households were hit by crime in 1987 than in 1980.
Preventing crime and locking up bad guys was only part of what President Reagan did to ensure justice for all. Another key component of his program was the appointment of judges who would faithfully interpret the Constitution rather than legislate from the bench. Of all the judicial appointments made by the President, none was more historically significant than Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. When Ronald Reagan became the first President to nominate a woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, he shattered a glass ceiling that had been in place since the founding of the country, forever changing not only the judiciary, but the role of women in our society. Little girls everywhere could now aspire to heights previously unavailable to them.
In many ways, President Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor was emblematic of how he viewed people – without an iota of prejudice. Gender, race ethnicity and religion just did not matter to him in the slightest. They were never factors in his decision making, other than when people were being discriminated against. When that happened, President Reagan was a tenacious fighter for equal rights. Under his leadership, the Federal government equaled or surpassed the number of civil rights cases filed by any previous Administration in virtually every enforcement category. Principal civil rights organizations received almost 18% more in funding.
President Reagan never forgot what it was like to grow up in a household with very limited financial means. He knew its impact on quality of life and helping the poor escape poverty was something he cared about deeply. Under his leadership, Federal spending for basic low-income assistance programs rose by 40%. The President also knew that a good education was the ticket out of poverty, and when his National Commission on Excellence in Education termed the U.S “A Nation at Risk” because of declining educational quality, he called for a variety of remedies including overall higher standards and accountability, parental choice and merit pay for teachers and principals.
Ronald Reagan was the first President to address the issue of HIV and AIDS. He established a Presidential Commission and consulted with Government agencies and private groups, after which a broad plan to fight the disease was implemented. Billions of dollars were committed for research, regulations making it difficult to get drugs to patients were eliminated and educational programs were developed, all of which were underpinned by a message of empathy for those infected. In a speech to the American Foundation for AIDS Research in May, 1987 he said:
“What our citizens must know is this: America faces a disease that is fatal and spreading. And this calls for urgency, not panic. It calls for compassion, not blame. And it calls for understanding, not ignorance. It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness.”
There was not a day during his eight years in the White House that Ronald Reagan did not work to ensure the domestic tranquility written about in the very first sentence of the Constitution. Forming a more perfect union was why he sought the Presidency in the first place, and was his “north star.”