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Sent from a friend who knew Reagan when…

“Carl Cannon had a nice, nostalgia piece on Reagan this morning.  Carl’s dad, Lou Cannon, is probably the most foremost Reagan biographer, and with George Skelton of the LA Times are the only reporters to cover Reagan from his first gubernatorial campaign to the end of his Presidency.  Reagan just had a nice way as Carl illustrates – even though he wasn’t very fond of Mitterrand personally. Reagan loved ethnic jokes and told them incessantly despite his staff always telling him not to use them so I was particularly amused by that part of the story.” — Sal Russo, political strategist who worked with Ronald Reagan while Governor of CA.

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, July 3, 2012, and 26 years ago today, a refurbished and spiffy Statue of Liberty was unveiled at a ceremony featuring the president of the United States and the president of France.

Addressing the crowd in French, Francois Mitterrand said he had crossed the ocean to bring “fraternal greetings” to the United States and to the iconic statue donated 100 years earlier by the people of France – “this first symbol of the values we share.”

Mitterand was being modest. The “first symbol” of French fraternity was the invaluable presence at George Washington’s side of the Marquis de Lafayette, an adventuresome and idealistic officer who served in the Continental Army, and who persuaded his nation to send a fleet – with 5,000 troops – to protect New York in 1780 and win the decisive battle of the war at Yorktown, Va., the following year.

Mitterrand’s mind was on the wars in Europe in the 20th century. “Twice you gave your blood to help save us and our liberty,” he said, as the setting sun put his shadow in silhouette against the statue. “Happy birthday, United States!” he said in English as he concluded. “Happy birthday, Miss Liberty!”

Ronald Reagan answered in kind: “Today,” he said, turning toward Mitterand, “with infinite gentleness, your countrymen tend the final resting places, marked now by rows of white crosses and stars, of more than 60,000 Americans who remain on French soil, a reminder since the days of Lafayette of our mutual struggles and sacrifices for freedom. So, tonight, as we celebrate the friendship of our two nations, we also pray: May it ever be so. God bless America, and vive la France!”

When Ronald Reagan took office, Lady Liberty was down on her heels. In the East Room of the White House on May 18, 1982, the president announced the formation of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Bicentennial Commission to rectify that problem.

The commission would be led by Lee Iacocca and raise upwards of $65 million for the project of restoring a monument that stood in tribute to both American diversity and American unity. Here is how Reagan put it:

“Much has been said over the years about the diversity of the American people and the vitality and resilience of the American character. Well, that character isn’t centered around any one religious denomination — for in our country there are many religions; everyone has a right to worship God as he or she chooses. It isn’t based on any one ethnic group or race — for our people come in all shades and shapes, and we remain dedicated to the proposition that all of them are created equal.

“I think our vision of liberty is reinforced by shared symbols and experiences. Perhaps the strongest image of them all is the one that for millions of Americans was their first glimpse of America — that Statue of Liberty.”

This is true, not just for immigrants, but for Americans returning to this country, especially those who have been in harm’s way. Reagan would later invoke the words of a young World War I artillery captain who returned on a troopship from France. “’I’ve never seen anything that looked so good,’ that doughboy, Harry Truman, wrote to his fiancée, Bess, back in Independence, Missouri, ‘as the Liberty Lady in New York Harbor.’”

As a humorous aside in his speech announcing the commission, Reagan had told an Irish joke. Actually, what he did was quip that his handlers had restricted his ethnic humor to Irish jokes “for fear of some misunderstanding.”

There are other ways to run afoul of the sensitivities of ethnic politics, however. At the rededication ceremony, the White House awarded to 12 prominent immigrants a new Medal of Liberty. Among the honorees were composer Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, and I.M. Pei.

But no Irish names (or Italian) were among the recipients, oversights that did not go unnoticed.

It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that in his remarks at the Statue of Liberty on July 3, 1986, Reagan singled out an American laborer with an Irish surname (and another with an Italian name). Speaking of the workers who had restored Miss Liberty, including the artisans who had come over from France to help, Reagan mentioned a man named Tony Soraci, “the grandson of immigrant Italians,” who had been caught in an iconic news photograph kissing the forehead of Miss Liberty.

“Robert Kearney feels the same way,” Reagan added. “At work on the statue after a serious illness, he gave $10,000 worth of commemorative pins to those who visited here. Part of the reason, he says, was an earlier construction job over in Hoboken and his friend named Blackie. They could see the harbor from the building they were working on, and every morning Blackie would look over the water, give a salute, and say, ‘That’s my gal!’”

“Well, the truth is,” Reagan added with perfect timing, “she’s everybody’s gal.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Editor