TAMPICO, Ill. — Sitting at a table in the small apartment in Tampico where Ronald Reagan was born, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said Friday it was the small-town values of Reagan’s rural Illinois upbringing that made him a rare leader.
“He may have left Illinois, but Illinois never left him,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich visited Reagan’s birthplace Friday as part of his participation in the events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth.
Reagan, the 40th president of the United States and the only native of Illinois to hold the office, was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico and also lived in Chicago, Galesburg and Monmouth before spending his adolescent years in Dixon.
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, also hosted a screening of their Reagan documentary, entitled “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny,” in Sterling, and Gingrich served as the keynote speaker at a gala dinner near Tampico.
Before the screening of the film, Gingrich said he and his wife decided to make the film in part to introduce Reagan’s legacy to a generation of Americans who had grown up after his presidency.
“There’s a lot to learn from Ronald Reagan,” Gingrich said,
While touring the apartment where Reagan was born, Gingrich said it reminded him of his own roots in Pennsylvania. A Midwestern upbringing ingrained in Reagan a belief in the value of sacrifice, self-sufficiency and hard work, he said.
“This is a culture, all across this region, that understands that life can be hard, but you get up out of bed, anyway,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich said Reagan’s presidency was unique in that he set his mind on three goals — bringing an end to Communism, revitalizing the American economy by reducing the size of government and reducing taxes, and re-establishing the idea of American exceptionalism. He pursued them relentlessly, making a commitment to forming a plan and seeing it through, something Gingrich said is lacking in modern American politics.
“It was the most purposeful presidency in American history,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich did not directly answer a question about the possibility that he would run for president in 2012, telling reporters, to ask his wife.
But during the tour of the Tampico apartment, Gingrich crawled through a window into an adjacent apartment that volunteer coordinator Joan Johnson said Reagan and his brother were handed through as children for the neighbors to watch over them. Gingrich said it was good to know if he does decide to run for president, he would be the only candidate to crawl through the same window as Reagan.
U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., also toured Reagan’s birthplace Friday, and said Reagan helped inspire him to enter politics.
Hultgren said one of the reasons Reagan remains a revered figure in the modern Republican Party is that he had success after coming into office at time of high unemployment and economic crisis, and his success offers hope for overcoming the country’s current economic problems.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., said Reagan was one of his heroes and an example of what can be accomplished when political leaders are willing to reach across the aisle and put the best interests of the country ahead of party affiliation.
“That’s the one thing I think we need,” said Schilling, who represents the 17th Congressional District which includes the Quad-Cities.
Mark and Terri Swegle of Dixon brought their 9-year-old son, David, to the movie screening and to meet Gingrich. Mark Swegle called the film “very inspirational” and said he and his family were fans of Reagan not only for his roots in their community.
“I believe in what he stood for,” Mark Swegle said.
David Swegle said he remembered going to Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon when Reagan died in 2004 and was impressed that a man who became president of the United States grew up in a small town like Dixon.
State Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, serves as chairman of the Illinois Reagan Centennial Commission. He said the bipartisan commission formed by the Illinois Legislature planned a year-long series of events to commemorate Reagan as a historic figure rather than a political one.
Mitchell said Reagan had a way of appealing to Democrats as well as Republicans, and that there are still a lot of “Reagan Democrats” in Illinois and across the country.
“That’s a sign of a true leader in my estimation,” Mitchell said.