Right from the Middle: Reagan, the Contras and the launch of the CTA Orange Line
Former Congressman Bill Lipinski writes in his “Right from the Middle” column about how his vote in support of former President Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the the Contras launched the construction of the Orange Line serving the Southwest Side of Chicagoland from the Chicago Loop to Midway Airport.
By Bill Lipinski
RoseMarie and I had our picture taken with every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, the only one that hangs in our home is the one with Ronald Wilson Reagan. He is the greatest president of the last half-century, and one of the greatest presidents this Democratic Republic has ever been fortunate enough to have in the oval office.
Before going into all the great things he did for this fortress of freedom we call, the United States of America, let me tell you about the day RoseMarie and I visited with him in the White House.
As we entered the oval office, he stood up from his desk to greet us and sad it’s always good to be with people from Illinois.
He then told us that he lived in our home town of Chicago at one time, but he was born in Tampico and lived the longest in Dixon Illinois.
He then asked if we were Cub fans and I replied no we were Sox fans. He then said he and Bob Elson the White Sox long time radio voice were very good friends and at one time he broadcast baseball games in Iowa.
He also talked about being interviewed by Bob Elson on the radio a number of times. Elson besides being a long time baseball broadcaster had two very popular Radio interview programs. One was from the 20th Century Limited Railroad train and the other was from the pump room at the ambassador east Hotel in Chicago.
President Reagan said he always believed that appearing on those two radio shows helped him with voters in the Midwest when he ran for president.
At that point RoseMarie asked him for autographs for our daughter Laura and our son Dan. He returned to his desk and proceeded to write presidential cards to our daughter and son, and then handed them to RoseMarie.
Then within a few seconds he asked to have them back, because he said he wrote something different on each card, and he knew how children were and they would argue who had the best card, so he wrote new cards with the same on each and returned them to RoseMarie, both of our children have those cards to this day.
At this point, an aide entered the Oval Office with a photographer and suggested to the president the three of us have our picture taken, which we did.
The aide then whispered to the president something, the president said I’m very sorry but something has come up, that I must deal with immediately. He asked us to come back soon shook hands and wished the White Sox well.
Before I talk about some of President Reagan’s great accomplishments for this Land of Liberty, let me tell you about another personal encounter I had with the president. Back in the early 1980’s there was a great deal of Communist activities in central and south America, one country where the communist were very strong and active was Nicaragua.
One group opposing the communist or Sandinistas as they called themself in Nicaragua was the Contras. President Reagan, always being a strong anti-communist, wanted to support the Contras.
The Democrats, under House Speaker Thomas [Tip] O’Neil’s leadership, were strongly supporting the Sandinistas. The Democrats viewed the Sandinistas as simply a leftist political party. Speaker O’Neil’s views were significantly influence by his sister who was a Maryknoll num in South America.
At the time, the Catholic Church in Central and South America was strongly supportive of what was called liberation theology, but that is a story for another column.
I had read a great deal about Communism before I was elected to Congress. Specifically the Russian Revolution, the erection of the Iron curtain by the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe, the communist taking over in China, and reading the Communist manifesto by Karl Marx. This made me, I believed, an informed anti-communist. Consequently, I had no problem supporting President Reagan and the Contras when we had a vote on the house floor to send military aid to the Contras.
When I cast that vote, Speaker O’Neil came rushing over to me and asked me what I was doing. I said I was casting a vote against communism. He then asked what would Mayor Daley say, referring to Mayor Richard J. Daley, and I replied that the Mayor always said to support the president.
The Speaker’s Face became red, and he stomped off waving his arms in disgust. The question was carried after a couple of votes.
The next day I received a call. My receptionist said the call was from President Reagan. I assumed it was one of my friends calling, and just saying that, because they knew how much I liked President Reagan.
I picked up the phone and said hello “Ron, how are you doing?” He said just fine, Congressman how are you?
When I recovered from the surprise I said just fine Mr. President. He then thanked me for my vote for the Contras . We then talked about the Contras, Communism, China, and the Soviet Union.
After about 7 or 8 minutes, he ask if there was anything he could do for me. As I have said many times since that day I’m sure God gave me the courage to say the following: “MR. President have you ever heard of the Southwest rapid transit?”
The President said no, but said “tell me about it.”
I proceeded to do just that. After a few minutes, the president asked me to stop, and said a man from his staff would call me to get the details about the project. He said he believed we could get things worked out.
I said thank you Mr. President and if I can help you in the future please feel free to call.
He closed by saying if there’s anything I can do for you congressman, don’t hesitate to call.
Within 10 minutes one of his aides in the White House called me to get all the information about the Southwest rapid transit proposal.
Eight weeks later Ralph Stanley, head of urban mass transit for the Federal government, came to Chicago and presented a full funding check to Governor Jim Thompson, Mayor Harold Washington and I, to build what is now called the “Orange Line.”
In my next column I’ll talk about what President Reagan did for this Democratic Republic of ours.
(William O. Lipinski served as the Congressman originally representing the 5th Congressional District and later the 3rd Congressional District from 1982 until 2005. Previously he served as the alderman for the 23rd Ward between 1975 until 1983, and as Democratic Committeeman for the 23rd Ward. Share your comments with Lipinski by email at BillLipinski@hotmail.com. Lipinski co-hosts the podcast “Two Guys on Politics” available on most podcast systems.)