Denver's dailies and newscasts love to localize any story they can -- if a plane crashes in India, a victim's second cousin is found grieving in Longmont -- but even with all the ink and airtime devoted to the passing of Ronald Reagan, they've overlooked Colorado's connections to the fortieth president of the United States.
Those ties date back to long before Reagan was elected in 1980. But they got plenty snarled on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley shot Reagan -- and it was revealed that the family of Reagan's young, would-be assassin lived in Evergreen. Not only that, but Hinckley had taken up residence at the Golden Hours motel on West Colfax Avenue earlier that month. During that time, he took in Taxi Driver at the Ogden -- then a revival house where former Denver resident Kirby McMillan, aka Mojo Nixon, swears he saw the Robert De Niro/Jodie Foster movie on the same night.
Hinckley also made an impression on another future Denver celeb: Kathy Lee, now producer for Lewis & Floorwax on the Fox. Lee's family not only owned the Golden Hours, but they lived there, too. "I can remember him to a T," Lee says, "just because he would stand around and talk to us. We were eight, nine years old and playing outside all the time. He asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I remember he asked us about Jodie Foster and told us, ŒShe's my favorite movie star.'" Hinckley would later confess that he wanted to kill the president in order to impress the then-teenage actress.
Lee recognized Reagan's assailant the moment his picture flashed on the screen. "I was over at a friend's house watching TV," she remembers, "and I said, 'Wait a minute -- that's the guy who was staying at our motel.'"
Correction: Hinckley had been staying at the motel, but he'd skipped out a few days before, heading for Washington, D.C., and leaving behind a bill for a reported $55.40 on room 30. "His parents came and paid," Lee says. "He plotted the whole thing at my parents' motel."
Hinckley's time at the Golden Hours landed Colorado hours of airtime and predicted the role this state would assume as scandal central in the years to come -- home of the Kobe Bryant sex-assault case, the Air Force Academy sex-assault cases, the University of Colorado whatever-the-hell-that-was-for-the-past-five-months case, the JonBenét Ramsey murder case. But last week, Lee didn't hear from any media outlets interested in tripping down this dark part of memory lane.
Patricia Schroeder, who represented Colorado's 1st Congressional District during Reagan's entire presidency, wrote a piece after his passing for USA Today. "The e-mails flew in here," she reports from her D.C. office, where the former congresswoman heads the Association of American Publishers. "There is such a vigorous group of people who protect him." And she didn't think her remembrance was particularly critical, either. "Reagan rooted for Washington over the Broncos," she reminds Colorado. "That should piss people off."
For that 1988 Super Bowl game, Schroeder sent Reagan a pair of boxer shorts emblazoned with the Broncos logo. Five years earlier, she'd given him something much more lasting: a label for his presidency. "He's just like a Teflon frying pan," the liberal -- and how! -- Democrat had told Congress. "Nothing sticks to him."
The image was inspired not by the nascent Iran-Contra scandal, or by Reagan's failure to chastise South Africa for keeping Nelson Mandela in jail, or by his dismantling of student aid. No, Schroeder, who'd been out touting Gary Hart's presidential run in 1983, was amazed to find that people didn't want to hear anything critical of the incumbent. "He was seen kind of as everyone's grandfather," she remembers. "It was very frustrating on the campaign and very frustrating in Congress." So one morning, she was making eggs for her kids and thought, "Gosh, the guy's just like this pan. The buck doesn't stop here; the buck doesn't even get this far."
Republican Terry Walker wanted to give Reagan a more dignified monument than a Teflon-president nickname: Ronald Reagan University, a 500-acre, $850 million campus outside Denver. But two months ago, Nancy Reagan put an end to that. "I appreciate the good intentions of public officials and citizens of Colorado," the former first lady said. "However, I feel strongly that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library already has an important education component. I urge those interested in supporting my husband's legacy to direct their energy and resources in that direction. We do not support the creation of a separate university."
Walker, a transplanted Southerner who made his money in computers, should have studied Reagan's legacy a little harder -- particularly if he was serious about his 1998 run for the Republican nomination for governor. "The longer Bill Owens thinks I'm not a factor, the better it is for me," he told Westword in October 1997. Walker didn't even qualify for the primary.
One Colorado Republican was a key factor in Reagan's own political career. The late Joseph Coors had a "belief in conservative principles such as limited government and economic freedom that led him, starting in the 1960s, to support a citizen politician from California named Ronald Reagan," Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, wrote after Coors's death in March 2003. "Throughout the 1970s, Reagan often visited Joe's home, usually winding up in the Coors kitchen. When Reagan was elected our 40th president, Joe became a member of his Kitchen Cabinet, offering staffing and policy suggestions, especially on national defense."
He offered more than that, of course. Joe Coors had started the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and his family's company provided the think tank with $250,000 during its first year, and much more in the years to come. Paul Weyrich, the foundation's first president, went on to found, with Coors, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and also to coin the term "moral majority." In 1980, the Heritage Foundation published the Mandate for Leadership, a guide for the Reagan transition team.
From his perch in the Kitchen Cabinet -- which eventually had to move out of the Executive Office Building across from the White House because of pesky conflict-of-interest concerns -- Coors pushed such Coloradans as Anne Gorsuch to head the Environmental Protection Agency, her soon-to-be husband Bob Burford to head the Bureau of Land Management, and James Watt of the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation to become Secretary of the Interior (a post now held by Coloradan and Watt mentee Gale Norton). "We have every kind of mix you can have," Watt said of his Interior employees in 1983. "I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple."
Throw in environmentalists, Hispanics, labor and gays, and you have most of the groups that were boycotting Coors beer at the time, largely because of Joe Coors's politics. (There was also that matter of a 1977 strike at the Golden plant.) "He was conservative as they come," Bill Coors said of his brother. "I mean, he was a little bit right of Attila the Hun." To separate Coors beer from Coors politics, the company began funneling money to Heritage through the Adolph Coors Foundation; in 1993, the conservative Castle Rock Foundation split off from that Coors foundation and took over any funding of Heritage and Free Congress. Today, company profits no longer go to either foundation -- although members of the Coors family are free to donate to whomever, and whatever, they want.
It took more than a decade to turn around Coors Brewing Company's image -- and that the effort was successful was largely due to the hard work of Peter Coors, son of Joe, who was named vice chairman and chief executive officer of the company in 1993, then chairman nine years later. Coors had put a non-discrimination policy in place in 1978 that included sexual orientation; in 1995 it introduced domestic-partner benefits that made the brewery one of the most worker-friendly companies in Colorado. Scott Coors, cousin of Pete, serves as a liaison with the gay community; Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, once held the same role. The company sponsors events geared to minority audiences across the country; it even hosts Key West's Fantasy Fest. And while calls for beer boycotts occasionally bubble back up, Coors is now sold in gay bars across the country. The company even reaffirmed its pro-gay-rights stance last month.
It did so because Pete Coors isn't the acting chairman of Coors right now: He's running for U.S. Senate. And with Bob Schaffer also in the race, Coors is sounding less like the guy who appreciates a good beer along with good workers and more like his father. Say it ain't so, Joe.
Nothing sticks to the Teflon president, but Colorado can't shake his legacy.
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