In the winter of 1986, President Ronald Reagan began a speech to students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology with a joke about Washington snowstorms.
"In Washington, when you wake up and there's a little bit of snow -- a sprinkling of snow and some ice out there -- you know that for some reason or other schedules are going to get changed entirely and things are going to be canceled just because of that sprinkling of snow," Reagan told about 1,500 students and officials in the school gym. "It always makes me think of the young fellow that was telling his girl how much he loved her. He said, 'I'd climb the highest mountain to be by your side. I'd swim the deepest ocean to see you. I'll be over Thursday night if it doesn't rain.' "
During his visits to Fairfax County while president, Reagan often was witty as he showed an awareness of local issues such as snow and airport noise. At an outdoor speech to CIA employees at Langley in 1982, a noisy jet took off from the airport that now bears his name. "We've got to do something about that airport," Reagan said.
A review of some of Reagan's Fairfax speeches -- culled from presidential papers -- says a lot about Reagan the man and the 40th president who will be buried tomorrow in California.
Whether speaking to CIA employees at Langley or students at Thomas Jefferson and Oakton high schools, Reagan mixed humor with the broad themes of his presidency and his core values.
He defended prayer in schools after Thomas Jefferson student Dawn Lee reminded him of the different cultures and religions in the nation's public schools. The trip to Thomas Jefferson to extol the school's science and technology emphasis came a week after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
"All over this country -- in city halls, in statehouses, in the offices of the nation's capital here -- people stopped and prayed for the seven who had lost their lives," Reagan said. "And yet you, the young people in schools, were denied that privilege to do that in your own schools. I have never asked for a doctrinaire prayer or a school to dictate a prayer or how anyone would worship. I have simply said that I believe that students should have the right and privilege to voluntarily pray within school if they want to. And that's up to them, and no one that doesn't care to or whose religion is different -- they can pursue their own courses. But I don't think there should be anyplace in this nation where anyone is denied the right to appeal to whatever God they worship."
Reagan used Oakton High as a backdrop for defending merit-pay programs for teachers in 1988. He also told the students that "the problem of the homeless" belonged to state and local leaders, not the federal government.
"Fairfax County has shown the nation how to upgrade the teaching profession by demonstrating how to attract and retain good teachers. Career ladders, performance-based pay and other initiatives help to keep good teachers in the profession," Reagan told about 800 Oakton students and teachers in the auditorium.
He told CIA employees during 1982 and 1984 visits that they were "the tripwire over which the totalitarian rule must stumble in their quest for global domination." After signing legislation designed to protect the identities of covert U.S. agents, Reagan told the CIA employees about "the internal decay of the Soviet experiment" and why it was important for the United States to build a strong defense and intelligence network.
"History shows that it is precisely when totalitarian regimes begin to decay from within, it is precisely when they feel the first real stirrings of domestic unrest, that they seek to reassure their own people of their vast and unchallengeable power through imperialistic expansion or foreign adventure," Reagan said.
He could be autobiographical, as when he told the Jefferson students about a favorite teacher from boyhood, or sentimental, as when he told them about the first time he rode in an automobile and listened to a radio.
He quoted Thomas Jefferson -- and Michael Jackson.
Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," he told the Oakton students, "has a powerful moral: 'I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways.' "
Reagan could also display his optimistic belief in America and in the young people such as those at Thomas Jefferson who were still stunned by the Challenger tragedy.
"Whatever path you choose," Reagan said, "if it follows the light of hope, it will lead you confidently into the future."