“When did America love a former president this way? When?” You know Ronald Reagan’s triumph is sealed for good when someone like Mike Wallace (on “Larry King”) is asking such questions, with utter admiration for the man he and all the rest of the media and educated elites used to scorn with such regularity.
Something very odd has happened. It’s been in the works for several years, and now the president’s death has brought it into huge focus.
It explains first of all the tremendous sadness with which people are reacting to news of his passing. Normally, when a 93-year-old Alzheimer’s victim who ceased being himself years ago dies, the immediate reaction is relief that he has finally gone on to his just reward. With Reagan there’s some of that, yes, but it hardly begins to mitigate the overriding hurt. Perhaps collectively there’s a sense of guilt that no one could do much of anything to help him over the last decade. A great amount of pent-up emotion is being released. Everyone knows he deserved so much better (though thank God for his wife), and that he’s the last man who would have ever settled for helplessness.
And maybe he wasn’t entirely helpless. The thing to remember is who he was going into his Alzheimer’s phase. During this period of earthly exile, when he was still with us but beyond reach, he began to take on a mythical character, the sort once reserved for a medieval ruler mysteriously snatched from his disbelieving subjects.
His star has been soaring ever since, sweeping many a liberal along in its wake. In a way they never could while he was in his prime, America’s not so loyal oppositionists began to take him seriously and to respect his principles and even understand his policies. Qualities they once belittled they started to appreciate. Like other Americans they know we’ll not see his like again.
That prospect appeared to affect President Bush’s presentation Sunday above Omaha Beach, as if he were bearing the burden of not being Ronald Reagan. But he’s not the only one. Since Saturday afternoon, the Great Communicators in the media have been all over the place trying to match the real McCoy. Let’s just say they did not get their start at WHO-Des Moines. ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas said Reagan would “lay” in state on at the Capitol. Lou Cannon had to correct her that he’s not Reagan’s “official” biographer. Jeff Greenfield dismissed Reagan’s anti-tax views as the product of his personal outrage at having to pay 70 percent of his high earnings to government. The incorrigible Haynes Johnson, thinking he was being polite, at that, called Reagan our “Sun King” and a wonderful “ceremonial president.” (What Hall of Mirrors has he been living in?) And he had to agree with Mikhail Gorbachev, who’d said that Reagan had “contributed” to ending the Cold War. Cokie Roberts, who was positively adoring of Reagan, claimed Reagan was getting nowhere with Congress until the attempt on his life — all of two months into his first term. Everyone seems to be falling for the blarney that Reagan and Tip O’Neill were great pals. Anyone recall a single kind thing O’Neill ever said about Reagan?
Expect the chatter to go on ad infinitum, by little people grasping at a giant of untold dimensions. What’s most telling is that everyone is now wanting to tell their own Reagan stories (and I’ll plead guilty in a moment). Reagan is beloved because people were truly fond of him. A whole generation has grown up of youngsters who like him as easily as earlier generations venerated Lincoln or Washington. Charisma, presence, personality, affability, modesty, decency — he exuded them all.
I saw him twice. The first time in August 1974, in Santa Barbara, my home town, before he moved to the area. It was his final year as governor but the first time he officially opened the town’s annual Old Spanish Days fiesta. I’d grown up watching his predecessor, Pat Brown, doing the honors. But Reagan was another matter — the town’s ferocious lefties would have made life impossible for him. So he stayed away, until that August evening, when he stood on the steps of the Old Mission, in a white cowboy shirt, and wowed an audience of several thousand sitting on the lawn below. What impressed me most is how he impressed the out-of-towner I was with that night. Later she and I were married. Reagan had been our political introduction.
After we moved to Washington in 1985, the first major dinner my wife and I attended was the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s annual bash at the Washington Hilton. The keynote speaker was President Reagan. His appearance electrified the room. Suddenly everyone felt better about being alive. Group psychology is an enduring mystery, but the only other time I’d felt something comparable was when we saw the Pope in Chicago in 1979. Whatever it was Reagan had it.
He said our best days are ahead of us. But how can that be, if he won’t be there too?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?