Simi Valley, California: In June 1984 President Ronald Reagan visited Ireland and delivered a remarkable speech about his ancestors from Tipperary in the town of Ballyporeen where they came from.
He remarked that many were buried in pauper’s graves not far from where he was speaking, appropriately outside the Ronald Reagan pub.
He also wondered what those ancestors might have thought that their great-grandson now had returned as the most powerful man in the world (and one of the most popular US presidents ever).
Reagan explained there had been a family disconnect. His father Jack was orphaned, at just age six, and never knew his family’s roots. Thanks to local researchers in Tipperary he was now reconnected.
The speech has been much underrated in the pantheon of American presidential visits to Ireland which focus on the historic John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton visits mostly.
By sheer dint of magnificent Hollywood stagecraft I watched the speech in its entirety in the Ronald Reagan pub, now reconstituted after being shipped 3,000 miles west to Simi Valley, about 50 miles North of Los Angeles, where it is a centerpiece in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
It stands literally in the shadow, one floor below the most amazing museum artifact I have ever seen, the actual Air Force One that Reagan flew on during his eight years as president from 1980 to 1988.
When you enter on board you step back in time. The guide explained how kids have no idea what the once state of the art IBM electric typewriter was used for or that there were no mobile phones.
It is a magnificent museum and library. The view from outside, where Reagan is buried is among the most spectacular I have ever seen with towering mountain tops in every direction and a vista unchanged in thousands of years.
Reagan lived in interesting times and he proved equal to them. His détente with Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War and spelt the death knell of Communism.
When you see the exhibit on the Berlin Wall and his impassioned speech from the base of it, which ended “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall”, you know you are watching a hinge of history after which nothing was ever the same.
His role in changing the political culture in America has been acknowledged by among others Bill Clinton but strangely it was his farewell note to the American people penned when he knew he has early Alzheimer’s that strikes an amazing grace note.
His sheer optimism and belief in America comes through even in his direst moment and you come away with a heightened respect for the man and his presidency, which is surely why he rates so highly when US leaders are ranked.
There is a magnificent replica of the Oval Office exactly as he left at 8.14 pm the last day he was in power and it is easy to imagine the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman who attended no fancy college but rose to the heights in Hollywood and in politics leaving with no regrets.
He had done so much, given America renewed optimism and like the old cowboy actor he knew when it was time to ride off into the sunset.
He did so with class and panache.
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