|Agriculture Secretary John Block with President Ronald Reagan on farm visit in the early 1980s.|
As Americans, President Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 years old this week, belongs to all of us as a national legacy. I had the special privilege to know him personally and serve in his cabinet from 1981 through 1986.
I met Ronald Reagan the first time — other than at huge campaign events — just after the 1980 election when his staff asked me to California to interview for Secretary of Agriculture. Reagan didn’t know me at all personally back then. Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) had recommended my name for the job because I was from Illinois, heartland America. I remember coming to President Reagan’s home in California and knocking on the door. Nancy Reagan opened it. She showed me inside, sat me down, and made me comfortable. A small group was waiting for me: the President-Elect, Ed Meese, and one or two others.
We talked for two hours that day. Ronald Reagan asked questions to draw me out. He wanted to hear me talk about myself, so he could get a feeling for me as a person. I was the only one in the room who knew anything about agriculture, so instead we talked mostly about his philosophy of government, how government should and should not work. He didn’t preach or sermonize. That wasn’t his nature. Instead, we conversed.
And he knew how to make decisions. After we finished, I went back to the hotel and within thirty minutes the phone rang. “Jack, this is Ronald Reagan, and I’d like you to be my Secretary of Agriculture,” he said. I told him I’d be proud to accept.
It didn’t take long for me to get into my first big fight in the Reagan cabinet. At one of the very first cabinet meetings, I raised a lightning rod issue — the embargo on grain exports to Soviet Russia imposed by Jimmy Carter after the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s Russian grain embargo was hurting American farmers far more than it was hurting anyone in Russia. It was driving down prices for American wheat, corn, and other crops. Russia, for its part, just bought its grain elsewhere, from America’s competitors. It made no sense, and Reagan, during the 1980 campaign, had promised to end the embargo if elected.
I seconded the idea and asked when we could get started.
Almost immediately, Al Haig, the Secretary of State, and Cap Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, jumped in their seats and started giving me hell. Russia was the enemy, they argued — the “evil empire” as Reagan himself would later call them. How could we make this concession without getting something in return?
This argument over ending the Russian grain embargo raged all through early 1981. Haig and Weinberger kept the pressure up as I stood my ground and found other allies. Even on March 30, the day President Reagan was shot by John Hinkley, we were haggling over it. (At one point, I was supposed to ride with President Reagan in his car from the Hilton Hotel — where the shooting occurred — to talk about it.)
The shooting delayed the issue as the president recovered. But on April 24, President Reagan kept his promise to American farmers. He put pragmatism and hard evidence ahead of ideology and lifted the embargo. Reagan hated the Soviet Union, but understood the that embargo was only hurting the USA.
Today, the debate goes on about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, with both Republicans and even some Democrats claiming him. I think Reagan would get a good laugh if he could hear it, enjoying the praise from both sides. Reagan won the support of plenty of Democrats in his landslide victories. To me, there is no question where Ronald Reagan stood. He was a true conservative. His motto was smaller government, lower taxes, and personal freedom. Yes, he went along with a few tax increases when pragmatism demanded it, but put his mountain of cuts next to the molehill of small increases and the message is clear.
Those years in the cabinet, the 1980s, had many difficult challenges, including a credit crisis that severely hit thousands of American farm producers. But overall they were good ones, the Reagan years — good for the country –and it’s gratifying to see the outpouring of good will on the Gipper’s 100th birthday.
To Ronald Reagan himself, my birthday greeting is simple. We miss you.
John R. Block, 45 years old at the time, was the youngest member of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Today, he lives outside Washington, D.C. while continuing to farm in Illinois, and represents the agriculture community in government through his role at OFW Law.