Music legend Merle Haggard is one country star whose life was profoundly and dramatically changed by the late Ronald Reagan. Haggard had a ragged early childhood and, by his teenage years, became a runaway and a juvenile delinquent. After years of sporadic jail time for small-time offenses, he spent hard time years behind bars at San Quentin prison for burglary. He received a full pardon from then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972. On the eve of the late President Reagan’s funeral, CMT.com spoke with Haggard about Reagan’s passing and what it meant to him.
What was your first reaction to news of his death?
Well, I was in mourning. He was a wonderful man in my life. He gave me a second chance at life in the form of the pardon he gave me. And, in knowing his condition with Alzheimer’s and all that, in the last 10 years, 10-plus years, the relief that I felt for Nancy all came rushing in at once, I guess.
When you received the pardon, was it a complete surprise to you?
Absolutely. They kept it under wraps. There was some effort on my brother-in-law’s part, who was part of the Reagan team when he was on the West Coast, and my brother-in-law was friends with [Reagan adviser} Michael Deaver and people who were in a position to examine my case, and they found that I was improperly convicted and had no representation because I was poor and things of that nature, and … 12 Supreme Court judges and Ronald Reagan — the governor — found it right to pardon me. God, it meant everything.
The pardon seemed to have profoundly changed your life as well as your career. You seemed to gain confidence and went on to start a remarkable string of No. 1 hits.
Yeah, it really did. Well, you can imagine yourself, you know, you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore. It’s just wonderful not to have to walk up and say, “Pardon me, before I do this, I want to tell you that I’m an ex-convict.” You have to do that with any sort of legal transaction, with leaving the country, with anything of that nature. All those things went away when Ronald Reagan was kind enough to look at my case and give me a pardon.
What was your reaction when you got the news of the pardon?
Oh, I was just overwhelmed with that. It was too good to be true.
After that, did you meet Mr. Reagan?
Yes, I played for the president when he was at his ranch in California. He had a party on the ranch, and I played for him. I had a chance to thank him personally for the pardon and meet Nancy and have dinner with him. I sat on the right-hand chair next to the president, so I felt really honored. He treated me like royalty.
Reagan didn’t have to give you the pardon. I’m sure that’s occurred to you.
No, he didn’t have to do it at all. He could have just snubbed his nose and went on to lunch. (laughs)
What are you seeing now from his legacy?
His death has drawn this country together again. You know, never in my life, have I seen anything like the outpouring of humanity and the interest in the passing. Oh man, it’s wonderful. What he’s done for this country right now … we needed this. He’s done something that no living man could do. It’s true. I think they ought to put his face on Mount Rushmore. I think he’s done that much. He’s the president of the century.
Before the pardon and after, did you agree with his politics?
You know, they were neither here nor there. You know, some of those things he may have fallen into. The crumbling of the Kremlin was from the inside out, but … the way he wore the Oval Office was better than anybody that I can remember. You know, he was the epitome of everything we would want a president to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have another one of those right now?
I guess we don’t right now.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I want G.W. [President George Bush] to do well. I want him to be another Ronald Reagan. I hope he can. But he’s been dealt some really tough cards.
Do you think he has it in him to be a Reagan?
I don’t know. I don’t know. He’s a young man, and you know, I might feel better if his daddy was in charge right now, but we gotta go with what we got, and we gotta give him all our support.
What do you think Mr. Reagan’s legacy will be in the long run?
The great humanitarian … the freedom … the intentional way he went about spreading freedom all over the world was remarkable. He did it in a peaceful way, and he didn’t have to use our military might. I think that’s why we’re getting such an outturn, a turning out to his passing, is because he was a man of peace, and that speaks right now. As a world and as a country, we gotta somehow come to the bargaining table without shooting at each other, and he stood for that.
What would be your message to the American people right now?
Let’s reconsider Ronald Reagan’s values. Let’s see if we can’t bring them back to life. And let his influence cause us to do the right thing.
Is this a special day for you?
Oh, yeah, I’ve been sitting here glued to the TV screen watching everything on him. You know it’s pretty hard to follow Johnny Cash’s death, and he may have been the only man in the world that could have done it.