I served with Ronald Reagan, I knew Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan was a friend of mine: Todd Akin, you’re no Ronald Reagan. Okay, none of that is actually true. However, when I was young, it seemed that then-President Reagan was part of my family. When he fired the air traffic controllers and faced down the Soviets, my grandparents, mom, aunts and uncles delighted as if their own blood had done so.
My relatives were Reaganites well before Bedtime for Bonzo. Liberals delight in mentioning that 1951 movie starring the future president, but to conservative Southwest Missourians, it was just neat to watch a young Gipper on the silver screen. He was just like us. We hadn’t become more conservative; it was the coastal elites who had “tuned in, turned on and dropped out.” As for my family, we were Mississippi transplants and so Southern we thought the Ozarks experienced harsh winters. Reagan might have called the state, “Mizz-oo-r-ee” instead of “Mizz-oo-r-ah” but he was one of us.
As all good things must do, the Reagan era ended. By 1994, I was an undergraduate history and political science major at Southwest Missouri State. Every legislative session, my alma mater sent a cadre of interns to work in the state legislature. From January through May of 1994, I lived, breathed, and worked state politics. Maybe it was my grandfather’s love for Reagan, or perhaps I just enjoy the theater of it all, but whatever the cause, I had fallen in love with politics.
Admittedly, I had strayed from my family’s political path: I voted for Bill Clinton. A proud centrist Democrat, I went to Jefferson City expecting to encounter principled yet pragmatic conservatives — just like my grandfather or my erstwhile Uncle Reagan. Instead, I met Todd Akin.
During the 1994 legislative session, then-state representative Akin hosted a weekly luncheon for interns. Every Wednesday, Akin would feed us chicken fingers and discuss conservative philosophy and politics. Keep in mind, I hail from a family that still supported Prohibition, opposed the lottery, and thought Bill Clinton lunched with the antichrist. In terms of experiential education, I thought I possessed a Ph.D. in all things conservative — until I attended Congressman Akin’s weekly symposiums.
At these gatherings, I discovered that any and all government programs amounted to stealing. Akin explained the thuggery and thievery at the heart of modern government. In his words, the “doers” had spent centuries building wealth until the “takers” elected FDR and used democratic procedures to legally steal via Social Security, Medicare, and any variety of government programs.
Like so many families from the hardscrabble Ozarks my grandparents depended upon Social Security, my great aunt, stricken with emphysema, needed Medicare to survive, and my Pell Grant spelled the difference between college and working full-time at a Shoney’s. In contrast to Akin, Uncle Reagan had never called us thieves. Indeed, the president honored our hard work. He claimed labor, thrift, and striving is what made America great. To Todd Akin, however, we were little more than bandits who stole under the legal fig leaf of a government handout.
Every Wednesday for five months, I ate chicken fingers and listened to Todd Akin’s political philosophy. In addition to those weekly sessions, at public functions, he would regularly corner us interns and preach about the evils of public schools and pragmatic politicians. I realized one thing: This was not my family’s conservatism. They didn’t much like communists (or Democrats) but they sent their kids to public schools and appreciated practical people who got things done, like Ronald Reagan.
That semester in Jefferson City cemented my passion to understand American politics. Today, I am a professor of history who specializes in the study of contemporary American politics. Yes, I wear bow ties. I even vote for Democrats. But I am no hoity-toity member of the liberal elite. My Mississippi-cum-Ozarks upbringing makes me suspicious of Democrats who have never shot a gun, shopped at Wal-Mart, or gone muddin’.
At the same time, I know one thing for sure: Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment was no slip of the tongue. The congressman harbors a radical worldview that bears no resemblance to the conservatism of my youth. I may not have actually known the Gipper, but I know Todd Akin and he is no Ronald Reagan. Republicans, Democrats, and all Missourians deserve better a choice in November.