A Great Debate About Giving the Great Communicator His Day

By Philip Rucker
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Passionate pontifications about Ronald Reagan's legacy might be the last thing you would expect in this heavily Democratic legislature. But that's what some lawmakers did yesterday in the Maryland General Assembly.

Two senators sponsoring a resolution to declare the former Republican president's birthday, Feb. 6, Ronald Reagan Day in Maryland heralded the patriotism and politics of the Great Communicator at a bill hearing.

"Every so often there are transformative presidencies that change the way the nation thinks," Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said. "FDR . . . JFK . . . Ronald Reagan."

Harris, who describes himself as "the son of immigrant parents who escaped communism," said his affection for the late president is particularly deep. He called on Marylanders to honor Reagan's leadership in fighting the Cold War.

"Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit, you should recognize good leadership," Harris said.

Not so fast, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who called Reagan's second term "disastrous." Miller said, "Reagan's claim to fame is that he brought about the end of the Cold War, but I think there were other conditions that brought Russia to its knees."

The debate over Reagan's legacy is particularly timely. Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed Reagan's legacy during a debate Monday night. A few days earlier, the U.S. senator from Illinois commented on the transformative nature of Reagan's politics to a newspaper editorial board.

"Even Barack Obama recognized that Ronald Reagan's politics in many ways transformed the U.S.," Miller said. "But at this point in time, I don't see a need for a Bill Clinton Day, a George Bush Day or a Ronald Reagan Day."

So why the rush to honor America's 40th president? Why now, with the 98th anniversary of Reagan's birth just a fortnight away?

To be sure, Harris might have a political motive. He is locked in a tight three-way contest for the GOP nomination in the 1st Congressional District, so headlines linking him to Reagan could play well among voters in the Feb. 12 primary.

In honoring Reagan, Maryland would hardly be doing something unusual. About 42 states honored Reagan on his birthday last year, either through legislative resolutions or gubernatorial proclamations, Harris said.

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a similar resolution this year, and the language is nearly identical to Maryland's bill. The resolution sailed through Virginia's Republican-controlled House of Delegates last week, passing 95 to 1. The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to take it up.

But what makes Maryland's resolution to honor Reagan so unusual is that the other state senator who testified on the bill is a Democrat: Roy P. Dyson of St. Mary's County.

For Dyson, support for the Ronald Reagan Day proclamation is personal. In 1980, as the Reagan Revolution swept the nation, Dyson was elected to his first of five terms in Congress representing Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Dyson, 59, sat on the House Armed Services Committee and worked closely with the Reagan White House to secure funding for Maryland's military sites, including the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, near Dyson's home town of Great Mills. "You could imagine the first time I went down there, my God, this guy from Great Mills, Maryland, meeting with the president in the Oval Office," Dyson said. But Reagan was "a very charming guy."

Dyson and Reagan developed a close affection, with Reagan giving Dyson a pair of presidential cuff links for his ailing father, who died of colon cancer in 1982. Although Dyson respected Reagan's charisma and politics, he is hardly his political hero. No, that would be Franklin D. Roosevelt. A bronze bust of FDR sits in Dyson's office.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company