Professor giving a lecture to students in old main
Michael Reagan describes father's friendship with Gorbachev during Wofford visit

By Felicia Kitzmiller
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012

Michael Reagan (Herald-Journal photo)

(Photo by Michael Justus/Herald-Journal)

Not many friendships begin with saying no, but such was the case with former United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Michael Reagan, son of the former president, visited Wofford College Thursday night to describe his father’s unlikely relationship with Gorbachev, and how it led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The leaders of the world’s two superpowers met for the first time in Geneva from Nov. 19 to Nov. 21, 1985. Reagan brought with him the START treaty for nuclear arms reduction. Gorbachev said he would only sign the treaty if the United States agreed to discontinue the strategic missile defense program Star Wars.

In a single word, Ronald Reagan told him that deal was unacceptable, according to his son.

Michael Reagan said that was a moment his father had been looking forward to for years. When Ronald Reagan lost his 1976 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Michael Reagan said he asked his father why he wanted to be president. The elder Reagan said he wanted to be the first American president to tell a General Secretary of the Communist Party “no.”

“Detente was very simple. It said as long as you’re only killing your people, it’s OK; just don’t kill our people. Ronald Reagan changed foreign policy. His foreign policy said ‘we win, they lose,’ ” Michael Reagan said.

The negotiations came to a standstill several times before a deal was struck in 1991. The deal, according to Michael Reagan, was remarkably similar to what was proposed by Reagan six years before, but it was done at a time that allowed Gorbachev to save face with his country. The men shared a relationship built on respect, Michael Reagan said.

“People think you have to have people like you. No. People you like, you bring to dinner and Christmas. People have to respect you,” he said.

Before his hour-long address, Reagan met briefly with about a dozen Wofford government students for a question and answer session. Students asked him about his father, the current political landscape and Alzheimer’s disease. Ronald Reagan died following a long battle with Alzheimer’s in 2004.

Hank Davis, a Wofford sophomore from Columbia who attended the voluntary discussion, said he has been fascinated by the former president since writing a thesis on Star Wars his senior year of high school. More than two decades after he left office, Reagan’s name is still mentioned in political campaigns.

“I think it was because he stood up for what he believed in,” Davis said. “He compromised with the left, but he never compromised on what he believed in. I think that’s what’s made him such a lasting icon in the Republican Party.”

With the presidential election only days away, Michael Reagan linked his father’s presidency and his method of governing back to the current political arena.

“The problem you have with political parties today is there’s no real leadership,” he said. “There’s no real leadership in the world.”

When Ronald Reagan wanted to pass a tax cut, he enlisted the help of Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and the tax cut was passed.

“It would be like John Boehner carrying Obamacare. Can you imagine that?” Reagan said. “… One of the things that was wonderful about Ronald Reagan was he never worried about his legacy. He worried about the country he was running. … Too many people worry about who is going to get the credit. This is what’s happening in Washington, D.C. Everyone is worried about who gets the credit and nothing gets done, and it’s you and I who suffer.”

Reagan also encouraged the students to vote in the upcoming election. The future of America is at stake in every election, and it is being decided by people who won’t be around to see it.

“That’s why there’s a $16 trillion debt,” he said.

The government gives seniors benefits that younger Americans are paying for.

“They should be giving discounts to youth, to young families who go out to eat. But no, they give it to the old guy in the Mercedes,” he said. “We die with a smile on our face because you’re paying the bill.”

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