As statues of controversial figures are being torn down across the nation, an Illinois House panel on Wednesday discussed putting a new one up in Springfield of Ronald Reagan, the Illinois native who went on to become the nation’s 40th president.
House members on the Statue and Monument Review Task Force debated the pros and cons of “The Gipper’s” legacy, and the propriety of memorializing him on the Capitol grounds, but didn’t come to a decision.
The South Side Democrat who chairs the panel said in weighing the former president’s flaws with his legacy there has to be a recognition that “whether we agree with his policies or not … he had a profound impact on the direction of this country.”
Reagan spent his early years in northwestern Illinois — born in Tampico and raised in Dixon — before heading west to launch his acting career in Hollywood, playing Notre Dame football player George Gipp and others, and eventually his political career as governor of California.
Josem Diaz, the vice president for Institutional Advancement at Reagan’s alma mater Eureka College in the Illinois city of the same name, would like to see a statue of a young Reagan on the state capitol grounds.
Of the four presidents who were either born or launched their political careers in Illinois — Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Barack Obama — only two have been permanently recognized on the grounds of the Illinois Capitol, Diaz said.
A statue of Lincoln overlooks the east side of the Capitol grounds, while one of Grant stands inside the statehouse’s rotunda.
Reagan’s story — the only U.S. president to be born and raised in the state, growing up in a low-income family and being admitted to college on a need-based scholarship — transcends party lines, Diaz said.
“[The] Eureka College narrative about President Reagan is not political, Republican or Democratic, it is not about all the good he did as a politician or the mistakes he made — like many leaders make, even U.S. presidents,” Diaz said.
“It is about the opportunity, and that is the story here, to remind our young generations to come that anyone from any walk of life — or any first generation student — can aspire to be the next president of the United States.”
Jamel Wright, the president of Eureka College, said the school isn’t advocating for the statue because they “agree with every single thing that Reagan did or said before, during or after he was in office” but rather in recognition that his flaws don’t “negate the fact that there were some things that were done under Reagan’s leadership and presidency that are noteworthy — and it is equally noteworthy that he is from our great state of Illinois.”
State Rep. Mary Flowers the chair of the committee, said Reagan had a “made-for-TV” presidency, one that would go on to define “our American experience” by producing images and ideas that remain “with the nation today.”
The South Side Democrat referenced Reagan’s iconic “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign ad, saying that “idealistic vision of the country has become firmly entrenched in the American psyche.”
But Flowers, who grew up watching Reagan on TV, also noted the former president is often credited for giving the nation the offensive concept of the “welfare queen,” a “key talking point” at his campaign rallies.
“This image has also stuck, not because it was true … but because it was a convenient way to celebrate ‘Morning in America’ without having to acknowledge the nightmare of systematic racism, that is also very much a part of our history,” Flowers said.
But Reagan has largely emerged as a positive historical figure, and “whether we agree with his policies or not we have to acknowledge that he accomplished a lot during his presidency and he had a profound impact on the direction of this country,” Flowers said.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, largely agreed.
“Everyone has mixed legacies and mixed things that they’ve done,” said Butler, who serves as the Republican spokesperson on the committee.
Deciding how to honor those people, and acknowledging both the “great things they’ve done but questions about the actions they’ve taken” is part of the story of honoring those figures, too, Butler said.
The committee didn’t make a final determination about a statue of Reagan before adjourning. Flowers said the panel is not at the decision-making stage yet and is focused on listening to “what everyone has to say.”
The meeting coincided with Virginia removing one of the nation’s largest Confederate monuments, a statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee on Wednesday as states across the country continue to decide which monuments can stay and which should go.
Illinois began its own review in April when House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch created the task force to “ensure Illinois’ public art is historically accurate and reflects the diversity of the state.”
The 11-member, bipartisan panel has held public hearings, listening to historians, advocates and organizations with a goal of recommending statues to either be removed or added.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has called for a more appropriate statue to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King than the one currently on the Capitol grounds.
Last year, a statue of Stephen Douglas was removed from outside the state Capitol. Another state panel had voted to remove the memorial to the former U.S. senator as well as one of Pierre Menard, because both men owned enslaved people.