It was a walk down memory lane and, oh, what memories.
There was Ronald Reagan, his once-glossy dark hair gone gray, the rosy-cheeked bloom a bit faded. Yet the 40th President of the United States still evokes the booming '80s--the days of tax cuts, reined-in regulators and mammoth military spending.
When the 80-year-old former President spoke at the annual Industrial League of Orange County dinner recently, an adoring crowd of developers, financiers, politicians and captains of industry gave him a standing ovation. Soon, the recession-spurred doldrums that had enveloped the Irvine Hyatt Regency ballroom seemed to dissolve like some bad dream.
How does he do it, this self-proclaimed veteran of the "mashed potato circuit"?
County political consultant Randy Smith put it simply: "He's magic."
I had seen the Great Communicator weave his spell before, on audiences during the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. Now though, a persistent economic downturn has left many businesses, states and local governments awash in red ink--and people across the country in fear of their job and future. How could Reagan combat such malaise, I wondered?
With self-deprecating good humor, for starters. Above the din of the standing ovation, Reagan said: "I haven't heard such cheering since the day I told the Washington media I was leaving town." He paused and grinned. "I don't know who cheered more--them or me."
It was just the first in a series of deftly delivered jokes sprinkled through his speech. A few were planned, others ad-libbed, all in that soothing, mellifluous voice.
But Reagan had a serious message: Freedom, justice and democracy are triumphing over communism and evil around the world.
From another, those words might have had a zealot's told-you-so ring. From the erstwhile host of "Death Valley Days," it seemed a natural progression in an evolving American Dream.
Anxiety--caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the continued conflict in the Mideast and elsewhere and the waning economic influence of the United States--was subtly transformed. Reagan painted them a Norman Rockwellian world of "fresh-scrubbed teen-agers . . . (working) in the first McDonald's in Moscow," and of bravery shown amid adversity by such people as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Nicaraguan leader Violetta Chamorro and Soviet gulag prisoner Natan Sharansky.
Reagan also told the crowd of capitalist cognoscenti that they must ensure the success of free markets and democracies around the globe. They were needed "as teachers, not preachers," he told them.
Yet even as he emphasized the practical, Reagan spoke with a certain missionary fervor about the correctness of the American way. "America's solemn duty," he said, "is to constantly renew its covenant with humanity to complete the grand work of human freedom that began over 200 years ago."
Against such a backdrop--of grand visions cast in simple contrasts of dark and light, good and evil--Reagan did refer to critics who have increasingly placed much of the blame on his Administration for the worst recession since the Great Depression.
"Nowadays, you hear a lot of revisionism about the allegedly 'greedy' 1980s," Reagan told the crowd. "But intellectual grave-robbers can never take a whole decade from you, the American people. In the 1980s, the shining city on the hill glowed brighter for the poor, middle class and rich alike."
Another standing ovation ushered the smiling former President out the doors of the salmon-pink-and-beige ballroom. Many who had entered with weary, frowning faces were smiling as they headed for their cars. Others milled around afterward to bask in the reflected glow.
"He picked up my spirits," Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young said.
The speech, he said, had given him "that tremendous chill only President Reagan can give you when he's talking about freedom and democracy."
"He was inspirational," said Don Glenn, vice president of property development for Carl Karcher Enterprises of Anaheim. "He showed us . . . what we really accomplished--the end of communism. . . . Compared to the minor setbacks that we've had, that's what's really important."
Richard D. Hamill, chief executive officer of Hycor Biomedical Inc. of Garden Grove, lingered afterward with his family and said: "He made me forget the recession."
For the moment, at least.