Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 11)

Old State House Museum - Monday, May 20, 2019

Ronald Reagan, known to millions as “The Great Communicator,” didn’t get this description by accident. Young Ronald, or “Dutch,” as he was known in his youth, worked his way through college, broke into radio early and became nationally known at NBC affiliate WHO in Des Moines. An often repeated tale of Reagan's radio days recounted how he delivered "play-by-play broadcasts" of Chicago Cubs baseball games he had never seen. His flawless recitations were based solely on telegraph accounts of games in progress. While traveling with the Cubs in California in 1937, Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. “Dutch” soon became known to moviegoers as “The Errol Flynn of the Bs.”( low-budget second features on double bills) He made thirty-one of them before being called up for service in World War II.

After the war, Reagan’s career gravitated toward television and his politics veered away from the New Deal Democrat views of his youth. As President of the Screen Actors Guild, he was neck-deep in the anti-Communist wave of the Cold War, and as his wealth increased, so did his disdain for high taxes and expanding government. This led him into the Republican Party, and his nationally broadcast election eve speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. His command of the media and appeal to everyday voters’ concerns led to being elected Governor of California and becoming a presidential possibility almost immediately.

Reagan had a large degree of popularity in Arkansas early on. In 1968, his supporters invited him to the state to support Republican candidates who were waging an all-out effort to crack the Democratic hold on the state. Arriving in the afternoon of Saturday, July 20, he was greeted by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and escorted to the Marion Hotel. After questions from reporters, he retreated into a fund-raising dinner hosted by Rockefeller and the Arkansas delegation to the Republican National Convention for U.S. Senate candidate Charles Bernard. Reagan would return the next year for the annual meeting of the Republican Governors’ Association in Hot Springs.

By 1976, much had changed. Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency to be succeeded by Gerald Ford, and Reagan by 1975 had completed two terms as Governor. He saw Ford as a well-meaning but weak executive manipulated by America’s adversaries. So he made the rare step of challenging an incumbent President for his party’s nomination, and came close to unseating Ford. The South was key to his strategy, and Arkansas was holding presidential primaries for the first time. On May 20, 1976, four days before the primary, Reagan landed in Little Rock and was greeted by a cheering crowd of over 500 supporters at Adams Field. Reagan emphasized that he was not seeking to just appeal to Republicans but to Democrats and Independents seeking change. Reagan question government regulatory policies, emphasizing that “Some people won’t realize that government does best when it does nothing.” After another rally in Fort Smith, he nailed down a two-to-one primary victory. 

Four years passed, Ford had been defeated by Jimmy Carter, and the economy was mired in a deep recession aggravated by high inflation, interest rates and unemployment, a second oil crisis, and the holding of American hostages in Iran for over 300 days. In a large field, Reagan would not be denied, and quickly zoomed to the lead. Reagan visited the state on November 29, 1979 in an effort to solidify support before the state’s February caucus. He spoke to a crowd of over 400 people at Robinson Auditorium. Come November 1980, with a tight three way race, and a single debate the week before the election, Reagan arrived at the Texarkana Airport on October 30 to a crowd of more than 4,000, where he castigated Carter for his handling of the economy and the Cuban Refugee and Iranian Hostage Crises. He also gave words of support for Arkansas Republican candidates such as Congressmen Ed Bethune and John Paul Hammerscmidt, Gubernatorial candidate Frank White, and U. S. Senate candidate Bill Clark.

Four more years came and went and Reagan approached a reelection campaign with an economic recovery well under way, the Iran Crisis a distant memory, and a thaw in the Cold War was near. In 1984, the President went on an active campaign schedule, and sought to expand the electoral map beyond his 1980 landslide. The weekend before the general election, that map extended through Little Rock, where he arrived on Saturday November 2 for a huge rally at the Statehouse Convention Center with over 10,000 supporters, and accompanied by several state candidates including U.S. Senate candidate Ed Bethune and Congressional candidate Judy Petty. During his speech, a balloon popped inside the hall, and Reagan responded, “Missed me.” (This referenced his attempted assassination three years earlier) The hotel bill at the Excelsior (now Marriott) for that night was almost $25,000, but Reagan only requested two things: ginger ale, and his favorite presidential snack: jellybeans.

As the twilight of his presidency approached, he turned his attention in 1988 to supporting the bid of his Vice President, George Bush, to succeed him, and went on an active campaign tour. On October 27, 1988, the 40th President taxied into the Little Rock Airport for the last time to speak to a crowd of over 20,000. The people there shrugged off his erroneous Hog Call (“Hey Pig, Sooie”) as he held a sign, “I’m a Bush Hog.” He extolled Bush’s qualifications while blasting Democrats as “the blame America first crowd.” Arkansas landed in the GOP column for the third election in a row, and Reagan’s approval among Arkansans remained high. When the former President’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s was announced in 1994, Arkansans reacted with genuine sorrow. Many documents containing Reagan’s correspondence with Arkansans are in the archives of his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, a continuing tribute to the mutual admiration that Reagan and Arkansans had for each other.