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SPPD Symposium Examines Life, Legacy of Ronald Reagan

By Matthew Kredell

Dean Jack Knott, Governor Pete Wilson, Tom Brokaw, USC President Max Nikias (From left) SPPD Dean Jack Knott, former California Gov. Pete Wilson, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, USC President C. L. Max Nikias at the Reagan Presidential Library
Photo by Tom Queally

Ronald Reagan’s life, leadership and legacy were analyzed at USC by former members of the Reagan administration, journalists who covered the Reagan era, political scholars and historians at a conference Feb. 1-2 as part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration.

The conference ended with a special plenary at the Reagan Library Feb. 2.

The Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium was presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development in partnership with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, and the USC Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, which was Feb. 6, the symposium began with three academic panels and a keynote address from USC professor and California historian Kevin Starr, and concluded with a keynote address from broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw and a panel moderated by Brokaw that included Lou Cannon, author of five biographies on Reagan, Douglas Brinkley, editor of The Reagan Diaries, Richard Reeves, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, and former California Governor Pete Wilson.

The four panels covered the following topics:

Reagan had a long history with USC. In 1966, during his run for governor of California, Reagan delivered his speech The Creative Society at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Twenty-three years later, he stood on the same stage to give his first speech after returning home to California from the White House. Stewart McLaurin, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration, presented SPPD dean Jack H. Knott with a framed picture of Reagan wearing a Trojan helmet taken at that 78th birthday celebration. Reagan died in 2004 at age 93.

“USC and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation have a natural intellectual foundation, one we just saw concretely visualized in Ronald Reagan’s Trojan hat,” said USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett. “I think that’s largely because of USC’s longstanding interest in the study of state and local government in addition to the federal government. The breadth of USC’s approach is unusual, as there are very few institutions of higher learning that sponsor serious and excellent programs studying government at all levels.”

The symposium was free to attend for students, faculty and community members. Though Reagan’s impact is still very much being felt in America today, Knott pointed out that his presidency was longer ago than it seems.

“Most students here weren’t born when Reagan was president,” Knott noted. “They look at him as an historical figure the way I look at someone like Dwight Eisenhower. There is a lot that all of us, both students and scholars alike, can learn from the way that Reagan functioned as a communicator, as a leader and as a decision maker in the state of California and as president.”

Some of the key points made by panelists included that Reagan was a big-picture leader. He set a strategic direction and trusted his appointees to formulate and carry out policy. He was known for his humorous and poignant one-liners but had more substance than given credit. He didn’t just present his speeches but played a large role in writing and editing them. In addition, they noted how Reagan held to strong principles but was willing and able to compromise in practice with the opposition party to achieve policy goals.

His congenial manner and ability to form interpersonal relationships served him well in his dealings with Congress and foreign leaders. He took office at a time when many Americans were exhausted from the problems of the previous two decades and he restored confidence in the United States. He established his greatness with his diplomacy in ending the Cold War, leaving a lasting legacy that cast a shadow over the presidents that have followed.

“I thought the scholars brought some interesting perspectives and were really able to touch on all the major points of what we perceived plus what actually happened,” said Larissa Martinez, a second-year MPA student in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

USC hosted the first of four symposia planned for the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration. The others will take place at the University of Virginia with a focus on global leadership Feb. 10-11, at Notre Dame with a focus on domestic and fiscal policy March 3, and at the U.S. Naval Academy with a focus on strengthening the military Oct. 19.

“We think it’s important not just to be a shining repository on a hill in Simi Valley but to bring an integral voice in the public debate, to provide a platform for great voices and debate in the (Reagan Presidential) Library but also to go into a port of places for ideas like USC,” said McLaurin. “We believe that President Reagan’s legacy is strong, that it will sustain and survive the analysis and the test of time.”