It is one of the enduring images of the late president. Ronald Reagan, atop his horse, at his California ranch. A man of the west. But it was something more. A political statement. For Reagan, the west was a powerful symbol.
"This image of the west offered, what it offered to everybody from the 19th to the early 20th century: opportunity to create yourself,'' said USC historian Kevin Starr.
Like tens of thousands of others, Reagan was drawn west to California in the 1930's. A region of America that offered the hope of jobs and a better life. Truly a land of wide open spaces.
"His whole persona, which you saw creep into all his language about his speeches, about the sense of openness and opportunity there was in America,'' said Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian. "That's the opportunity and hope he had when he came to California in the 30's as a wide-eyed young man that succeeded in his world."
He succeeded as an actor, sometimes playing a cowboy in the movies. And he took that old west imagery into politics, creating a bold message that appealed to the new west:
"He spoke very powerfully to those people. He was ultimately a man of suburbia, the suburbs, using the wild west or the frontier as his imagery," said Starr.
And when he took that message to the national stage it resonated. Voters grabbed onto his idea of a land of wide open opportunity.
Said Khachigian: "That's why when he went back to Washington he always talked about starting a prairie fire …......"
Reagan used that imagery to regal the 1988 GOP convention in New Orleans: "We lit a prairie fire a few years back. Those flames were fed by passionate ideas and convictions. And we were determined to make them run all --burn i should say -- all across America."
So the Midwesterner who re-invented himself as a man of western values, convinced a party -- and a people -- that those values still held.
"At the core of the west, there's a profound and powerful American message. Ronald Reagan took that message of hope, constitution, the validity of the American experience, and returned it to the nation at large," said Starr.
"Ronald Reagan re-nationalized the west, made it extend its message from sea to shining sea."
It's part of his legacy -- the western legacy. His belief that it's always possible to get a piece of the American dream.
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