A friend who was away asked if there’d been any other stories last week. It was a good question. Yes, the G-8 met. The U.N. passed an important resolution. The Pistons won and lost. Ray Charles died. But none of that quite registered. Even Smarty Jones’s loss at Belmont, coming as it did hours after news broke of Ronald Reagan’s death, caused little if any disappointment. For once in a very long time, the death of a great man was appropriately observed. A full week of serious mourning, remembrance, and ritual was more than we as a nation knew we could still pull off.
Even leading liberals rose to the occasion. Who could have expected this from Ted Kennedy? “He came to power at a time of self-fulfilling pessimism, a pervasive belief that public policy could barely move molehills, let alone mountains. The true achievement of the ‘Reagan revolution’ was the renewal of America’s faith in itself.” According to Kennedy, in other words, Reagan moved mountains.
Of course, the longer the week lasted the more one could sense the good-behavior crowd chomping at the bit. Now that Reagan is safely interred, it could be off to the races. First out of the gate was emeritus historian Lewis Gould, writing in Sunday’s Washington Post. Last week Bob Tyrrell observed that Reagan belittlers prefer to think of the 40th president as another Warren Harding. As if on cue, Gould notes that “tearful millions” foolishly mourned the death of Harding in 1923 — the very same president who would become an object of scorn and ridicule once second drafts of his history were written. So watch out, Reagan. The high marks you received this week won’t last.
One problem here, which a historian worth his credentials should have noticed. Harding died in office, Reagan 15 years after leaving it. By now historians are already on the third or fourth drafts of his presidency, each one more positive and respectful than the previous.
Gould credits much of the favorable coverage of Reagan last week to a media “sensitive always to the charge that they are too liberal.” thereby confirming that indeed they are if they’re always needing to catch themselves. In scolding the press this way, meanwhile, Gould only reinforced his own tendentiousness. As it was, not everyone was on his best behavior.
If there had been an Enemy of the Week last week, I’m told on good authority it would have been Christopher Hitchens. Sure, there were others who wrote loathsomely about Reagan’s passing, whether Maureen Dowd or Jimmy Breslin, but they were merely following in the trail immediately blazed by Hitchens. A week ago, among other snide offerings in Slate magazine, Hitchens treated Reagan with all the respect the president might have enjoyed in Fallujah. Here’s some of what Hitchens called Reagan: “a rictus of senile fury”; “a cruel and stupid lizard”; “dumb as a stump”; “an obvious phony and loon.” And that’s before he got personal.
If the University of Cincinnati can suspend its basketball coach for drunken driving, shouldn’t Slate at least provide Hitchens with a designated writer? He’s been mixing drinking and writing a bit too long now.
And that was before Margaret Thatcher delivered the most compelling tribute of them all: affectionate, eloquent, and fearless. I recommend repeated viewings. We won’t see her like again either. Most wonderfully, while Hitchens was crawling off to his favorite sewers, Thatcher joined the final flight to California.
The burial was marred by one odd moment, when Ron Reagan took an obvious slap at President Bush in arguing that unlike other politicians his father never wore his religion on his sleeve or felt he had a mandate from God. Why none of the press has seized on these comments must remain a mystery. Perhaps covering the 40th President one last time left it with a permanent taste for the higher road.