Running With Scissors

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What with Father's Day being celebrated on 13 June in the US, I was all ready to wax smart-alecky on fathers and the folly of listening to their advice about cars, but with the recent deaths of two prominent Americans, it seemed more appropriate to talk about them instead.

The Great Communicator

I'm writing this as I listen to the funeral service of Ronald W. Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. The actor-turned-politician died Saturday 5 June at age 93.

Those of us who are living in times of low interest rates and a thriving economy may find it difficult to believe how different the country was when Reagan took office in January 1981. The Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; years of double-digit inflation, economic stagnation, oil shortages, and high tax rates; all of these contributed to the malaise felt by the American public during the 1970s. Reagan may have secured his election when, during the campaign, he asked voters 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?'

The new President was an optimist, and his optimism was infectious. He galvanised the public in ways few Presidents have been able to do. He firmly believed in and embraced traditional values: love of country, love of his wife and family, a belief in the importance of personal responsibility and hard work. Whether you agreed with him politically or not, you had to like the guy. He was a kind man who genuinely liked other people. He was never mean-spirited. He knew how to deal with political adversaries without turning them into enemies. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remembered him for facing the world’s challenges with 'almost a lightness of spirit'. He liked to laugh and to tell stories and jokes, many of them at his own expense, thus earning himself the soubriquet 'The Great Communicator'.

Reporter: 'How was your meeting with Desmond Tutu?'

Ronald Reagan: 'So-so.'

Was he a great President? History will have to answer that question. Certainly he had his critics. But agree or disagree with him, we have to recognize that Ronald Reagan changed the nation and the world in dramatic fashion. He presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. When he took office, the prime interest rate1 was 21.5%, a figure that is inconceivable today, and the top income tax rate was 70%. Reagan believed that lower tax rates would lead to greater economic investment and a vibrant economy, and his tenure saw the beginning of generally declining tax rates and the beginning of an incredible bull market lasting nearly 20 years. Reagan was also a conservative in an era when conservatives were often seen as old fuddy-duddies fighting a losing battle against the 20th Century. He gave conservatism a shot in the arm and reinvigorated the Republican Party2.

Even in death Ronald Reagan has perhaps one more role to play as US citizens and elected officials debate the ethics of stem cell research. His widow Nancy has come out in favour of using foetal stem cells (ie, cells derived from human embryos) in the search for treatment and cures for a variety of diseases, including the devastating Alzheimer's Disease that ended his life. Her position is at odds with the views of many in the Republican Party, including current US President George W. Bush.

The Father of Soul

Musician Ray Charles, perhaps best known for his songs 'Georgia on My Mind' and 'I Can't Stop Loving You', died Thursday 10 June at the age of 73.

Blind at age 7 and orphaned by 15, Charles was a gifted pianist and saxophonist who disdained the notion of musical 'categories'. His work spanned soul, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel, and even big band and country music. Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, he moved to Seattle, Washington, at the age of 16 to escape the racially-segregated southern US. Then known as RC Johnson, he played wherever he could as a sideman or solo act, and his talent quickly won him fans among the public and among his fellow musicians.

In the early 1950s, Charles signed with Atlantic Records and moved to New Orleans to work with Guitar Slim. His first commercial success came when he played piano on Guitar Slim's 'The Things That I Used to Do', which sold more than a million copies. In 1959, his top-10 hit 'What'd I Say' led to an appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall and a lucrative contract from ABC-Paramount Records. His first album for his new label, The Genius Hits the Road (1960), featured 'Georgia on My Mind', which hit No. 1 and won two Grammys. He followed up with another No. 1 hit, 'Hit the Road Jack'. Always inventive, in 1962 Charles released an album of country music, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, that combined soul and country music. To the surprise of many observers, the album went to No. 1, as did one of its songs, Charles' rendition of Don Gibson's 'I Can't Stop Loving You'.

Even when his recordings no longer topped the charts, he remained a popular performer. People who were unfamiliar with his music still may have seen him in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers or in his 1980s Pepsi ads that features the tagline 'You've got the right one baby, uh-huh'.

In Common

'You hear folks talking about being poor. Even compared to other blacks. . . we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground.'
-- Ray Charles

At first glance, it would appear that Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles didn't have much in common. However, both Reagan, a white man born to middle class parents, and Ray Charles, a black man whose family was resolutely poor, embodied one of America's cherished ideas about itself: that anyone, no matter what his background, can succeed through talent and hard work. Both men inspired younger generations to follow in their footsteps. The world is a poorer place without them.

Further Reading

Running With Scissors


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1The rate charged by banks lending money to other banks.2One of two main political parties in the US.

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