Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Flashback 1984: "Everything is fine, everyone is happy"

Ronald Reagan at the College of DuPAge

     Barack Obama returns to Chicago Tuesday night to give his final speech as president of the United States. Through the combination of equal parts pushiness and blind luck that have been the twin pole stars of my career, I am scheduled not only to attend the speech, but to be a local representative in the White House press pool, accompanying the president during his five hour visit. I'm excited to be part of it, and apprehensive not to screw up.
     It will be the third time I've heard a president give a speech, live. The occasion previous to this was election night, 2o08, when indulging my then-13 year-old son, I attended the enormous rally in Grant Park. And the first time was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan campaigned for re-election at the College of DuPage and I, then opinion page editor of the Wheaton Daily Journal, went to hear what the Gipper had to say.
     This column is in several ways characteristic, in that it focuses on something that most people in the room wanted to ignore, and it ends just as the part most journalists would focus on—the speech itself—begins. You can consider that a flaw or an attribute but, avoiding the passing issues of the moment helps it, I believe, resonate today, where shouting down any whisper of protest was a highlight of every rally of our president-elect. There are a few cliches and clunky word choices but, in my defense, I was 24 years old when I wrote this.
     It was only a small sign. But it caught my eye. all the other signs and banners decking the gym for President Reagan's visit to the College of DuPage were blue and red. This one was green.
     It said, 'Bread not Bombs" and had a nuclear symbol in a circle crossed with a slash. It was taped to the wall, opposite from where Reagan would be speaking. I knew that a sign like that could not last long in this hall, and I settled down to watch it.
     I did not have to wait long. A few feet away, Liz Seeland—a Young Republican from Wheaton College—stood handing out American flags and hand-painted signs to the people streaming into the hall. She saw the sign and, with a bunch of flags in one hand, she stacked up cardboard boxes in front of the sign until no one could see it.
     "I didn't just do that," she said to a group of three boys who smiled at her as she blocked the sign.
    The three boys—Pete Kobs, Oliver Schmittenberg and Jeff Letus, all 16 years old and all from Glenbard West high School—kept their place in front of the sign.
    "It makes me mad," said Pete, referring to the sign. "If kids don't like Reagan, they shouldn't be here."
    "There's a difference between stating your views and being out of place," said Jeff.
     Suddenly a boy in a gray sweatshirt came over and pushed the boxes away.
     "We want to show Reagan our views," said Jim Interlandi, also from Glenbard West.
     "nothing is anti-Reagan in that message," he added, looking at the sign. "If those people have the right to say what they want, I have the right to say what I want."
     now the sign was visible again, hanging to the right and below another sign—twice as big—that said, "RON, AMERICA NEEDS YOU." It was the only sign in sight that had not been painted by the sponsors of the rally, the only one that added a note of dissent.
     It was too much, apparently, for the three schoolmates. They eyed the sign uncomfortably.
    "Gish, I wish I could rip that sign down, it makes me mad, said Pete, after Jim had left. But nobody moved toward it.
     A few minutes passed, then suddenly one person, glancing guiltily in all directions, ran up and tore the sign down, leaving it in a crumpled heap on the gym floor. His friends looked on in approval.
     A College of DuPage student named Jennifer ran up and tried to put the sign back up, but it wouldn't stay in place.
     "Everybody has a right to their opinion," she said, adding that she was in fact a Reagan supporter.
     Jim, who had struggled to keep the sign up, said he wasn't going to try to put it back up. "It would only get ripped down again," he said, grimly. "Maybe if I can find some more tape." He shrugged and went to look for his friends.
     From the back of the room, it was a scene of pure enthusiasm. The band played soaring, stirring marches. The green sign had disappeared—it wasn't even a lump of cloth amidst the confetti that covered the floor. An hour went by. Then, a few minutes before Reagan arrived, I noticed a tinge of green in the center of the crowd. It was the little green sign, held aloft in the midst of signs like "AMERICA NEEDS REAGAN" and "WMEN FOR REAGAN." Holding my press credentials up in front of my face, I worked my way into the center of the crowd.'
     Lisa Cargill, 18, was one of perhaps a dozen protestors, gathered in front of the press bleachers. They raised their hands in peace symbols and held tiny signs with slogans like "No Nukes" and "I don't love Reagan." Lisa held up one corner of the little green sign.
     "We are going to try to be seen and try to be heard," she said, shouting above the music. "People are taking our signs down, kicking us, hitting us with sticks."
     Indeed, the people around them were not happy. "Get a job!" someone shouted. "Get a real life!" another shouted. 
     I moved away from the group, to the back of the room. The chants were louder now. "Four more years," and "We want Reagan." I wanted to see if Reagan would see the sign abover the crowd. The roar was deafening, as the high school marching band finished playing "Maniac" and went into "Hail to the Chief." The green sign fluttered briefly, but then disappeared below the waving flags and placards. Perhaps somebody pulled it down, perhaps those holding it up got tired.
    When Reagan finally took the podium and looked out over the thousands of people, not a hint of dissent was in view. He smiled at the smiling faces, waving flags, and blue and red signs. No doubt, as he started to speak, he was thinking about how everyone is happy, and how everything is fine." 



  1. "People are taking our signs down, kicking us, hitting us with sticks." That line sure resonates today.

    I'll be DVRing tonight's speech; I expect there may be some protesters, but their voices will be drowned out by the cheers. Looking forward to your reporting (or column) about this historic occasion.


  2. It says something about Reagan, or his supporters, that a relatively anodyne message like "Bread Not Bombs" offended them.

    Bitter Scribe

  3. So happy for you, Neil! Can't wait to "hear" about it!

  4. Congrats!

    Reagan will never be forgiven by progressives for starting the union busting trend.

    1. I don't think we can blame Ronnie for the union busting. It was nothing new, but rather a continuation of Republican 19th Century thinking that was alive and quite well during the 30s.


  5. He upped the ante in the modern age with the air traffic controllers strike busting, etc.

    1. At least he didn't have the National Guard gun them down.


  6. Yes, no one beats Hoover and his veterans treatment...so far


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