Ronald Reagan vs College Students, 1967

Randall Stephens

"NEW HAVEN, Dec. 4 [1967]--Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, who said he had never taught anything before except swimming and Sunday school, sat on a desk at Yale University today and conducted a class in American history." So reported the New York Times on the Gipper's visit to the ivy, where he was met with student protests and plenty of probing questions (December 6, 1967).

"Should homosexuals be barred from holding public office?" a senior from LA asked. The governor was surprised by the question. Rumors had been swirling that his administration had fired two staff members after their sexual preferences came to light. "It's a tragic
illness," said Reagan, after a pause. And, yes, he did think that homosexuality should remain illegal. Some students earlier had demanded that the school rescind its invitation to Reagan. The governor, who visited Yale as a Chubb fellow, gave his $500 honorarium to charity.

The confrontation between the 56-year-old governor and Yale students in 1967 speaks to the culture wars that roiled the decade and continue to reverberate to this day. In the video embedded here the students, with haircuts that make them look like clones of Rob from My Three Sons, square off with Reagan on poverty, race, and Vietnam.

The commemoration of the one-hundredth birthday of the 40th president brought with it the usual fanfare of radio specials, documentaries, guest editorials, and the like. The new HBO doc
Reagan, like PBS's American experience bio, spans the actor-turned-politician's career. (Watch the latter in full here.)

Lost in the telling, sometimes, is the scrappy, intensely ideological cold and cultural warrior from the 1960s and early 1970s. To correct that a bit, see the governor go at it with the somewhat nervous Yalies. Or, observe him lashing out against that "mess in Berkeley." (A clip from the HBO doc showing the governor dress down Berkeley administrators shows that pretty well.) The public memory version--rosy-cheeked, avuncular, sunny--overshadows that more fiery aspect of his personality and politics.

Americans remember their leaders as they choose. (The myths and legends are as stubborn as a Missouri mule.) But it is good to remind ourselves that the politicians and public figures we revere and/or study are rarely as one-dimensional as we'd sometimes think they are.