From the Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. As no two human souls are alike, Reagan and Trump are, of course, completely different men.
Wandering around this beautiful tribute to my former boss stirs the memories. Along with so many Reagan colleagues I was here the day the Library opened. There were five presidents here that day of November 4, 1991 — Nixon, Ford, Carter, the sitting president George H.W. Bush, plus, of course, the man himself Ronald Reagan. Lady Bird Johnson represented the late President Johnson, and as I recall John F. Kennedy Jr. and possibly sister Caroline were there as well.
Yet as Donald Trump and his competitors gather here for Wednesday night’s debate hosted by CNN (and yes, full disclosure, I am a CNN commentator) perhaps the most stirring memory of the opening day celebrating the life and legacy of President Reagan is of a speech by someone else entirely. Actor Charlton Heston spoke on that opening day. And in that wonderfully deep voice that had made him such a legendary presence on the movie screen, Heston took time to say this:
Over the past twenty some years, on a January day at high noon on the west front of the Capitol, each of these five men has taken part in an event unique in the world, without force or coercion, with neither the threat of military violence nor parliamentary abrasion, each in his turn has accepted in peaceful transfer the most awesome power and influence ever put in the hand of a single human being. The man who holds this power, in the fullness of time, passes it on in civil and genial obedience to the customs of two centuries.
Each of these men inherited more than just a constitutional legacy, each will be forever wrapped in legend and myth, each has carried a burden of responsibility that has no known counterpart in the world. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush are the lineal descendants of Washington and Adams, Jefferson and Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt. Through them, they are linked to the very birth year of our Republic.
Presidents, what do we pray for him? What do we wish from them? What can he pledge to us? What can we say or do to help him? It’s been said that the creation of the United States is the greatest political act of mankind. How did that happen? What brought about that extraordinary confluence of time, place, circumstance, a concerted effort of a people in arms and a few great men.
How did the line continue through two centuries, to these five who stand here with us, having borne, still bearing, the awesome weight of the Republic? Why has it worked so long? And so well? Was it our system? Surely that’s part of it. The American dream which is not success, but freedom. It’s not that only though. Other countries have cherished that dream and lost it but what then? Are we smarter? Is it luck? Are we more determined? Is it the grace of God? I think it is in part the land itself, that broad swell of continent between those shining seas.
From the very beginning, before we were Americans, as a people we were captivated by the land. “We belonged to the land before the land was ours,” Carl Sandburg wrote. American writers have been exploring this country and its history from the beginning.
Reading what some of them have written over all these years I was struck by how readily fragments, sentences of what they wrote fell almost by themselves into one paragraph. They seem to speak with one voice. Here are the words of seven men: Martin Luther King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Paine, Samuel Elliot Morrison, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and Abraham Lincoln about America and Americans. I have a dream, I refuse to accept the end of man. I believe he will endure, he will prevail, man is immortal not because alone among God’s creatures, he has a voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
About America, and Americans, this is particularly true, it’s a fabulous country, the only, fabulous country where miracles not only happen, they happen all the time. As a nation we have perhaps uniquely a special willingness of the heart, a blithe fearlessness, a simple yearning for righteousness and justice that ignited in our revolution the flame of freedom that cannot be stamped out. That is the living truthful spirit of this country.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The sunshine patriot and the summer soldier will in this crisis shrink from service. But he who stands and bears it now will earn the thanks of men and women. We must bind up the nation’s wounds, reaffirming the right as God gives us to see the right. Let us finish the work we are in.
What, one must ask, is different now in the fall of 2015 from that day 24 autumns ago in this very place? Or, to focus on the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump, what is so very different now that has Americans in Dallas filling the American Airlines Center to the tune of 20,000 cheering Trumpers?
Answer? In fact, Donald Trump has captured the American spirit — as each of those presidents who were here to help Ronald Reagan had done in their own day.
One of the more amusing aspects of today is to watch some Establishment Republican utter the name of Ronald Reagan as the conservative equivalent of a Catholic dutifully repeating the rosary. As if in the act one can call upon the appropriate and relevant deity for salvation, political, or otherwise.
Out here at the Reagan Library, a magnificent tribute to the life and times of America’s beloved (by most) 40th president, the memories come rushing back of just how much disdain the GOP elders and power brokers of the day had for Reagan. It is, in fact, all too easy for those sayers of the Reagan political rosary to skip over the facts of a history that has now conquered the GOP’s Ruling Class for eternity.
In his new book Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan, Reagan biographer Craig Shirley takes note of the very real criticisms that were aimed at Reagan.
Interestingly, Shirley reports on columnist Charles Krauthammer, today one of Trump’s biggest critics, said this of Reagan in 1987:
With a year left in the Gipper’s administration, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal signaled “the end of the Age of Reagan” and his time in Washington was marked by “more disgraces than can fit in a nursery rhyme.”
Krauthammer would also applaud events “[n]ow that the Wizard’s Teflon has worn off,” assuring that “Reagan has reached the nadir of his political effectiveness.”
Shirley notes this as well, a sign — literally in this case — of the Establishment impulse that lurked inside the GOP: Just two years after his 1980 landslide win, “An RNC aide and Bush booster taped a piece of paper to the door of her office, which said, ‘Sign Up Here for the Bush 1984 Campaign.’” Alas for that Bushie, Reagan won re-election two years later in a 49-state landslide.
Reagan, reminds Shirley, was derided for everything from his sleep habits to his physical condition following the attempt on his life in 1981, with one UPI reporter denying that Reagan “had been seriously injured at all.” Shirley reminds that “Reagan had lost half the blood in his body with a punctured lung and a detonator bullet burned in his chest, less than one inch from his heart.”
Notably, Shirley observes — correctly — that:
Before he went to Washington, and after he left Washington, the dominant culture loathed Ronald Reagan, had always loathed Reagan, would always loathe Reagan, and spent many an hour trying to tear him down. Simply understood, Ronald Reagan had made a lifetime of challenging conventional wisdom. Even in the hours after his death, they attacked and criticized him, even taking time to lambaste his movie career, which had ended exactly fifty years earlier in 1964.
All true, and in fact those few anecdotes selected here don’t even begin to do justice to the widespread contempt rivals in the GOP Establishment like Gerald Ford had for Reagan.
Now, as the cast of candidates gather at Reagan’s presidential library, the target of Establishment contempt is Donald Trump. And while Trump cannot be Reagan, there is no mistaking that the reaction to his candidacy does in fact have more than a whiff of the anti-Reagan sentiment that pervaded the GOP once upon a time. Everything from Trump’s looks to his style to his vocabulary to his business success and more has been subjected to a massive overload of contempt, condescension, and finally, as he has pulled ahead in the polls — rage. This can’t be happening shout the Establishment naysayers, agog that nothing they seem to do penetrates the Trump armor.
As the debate nears, one-time supposed front-runner Jeb Bush is, per the public prints, holding repeated debate practice sessions in which he is getting instruction on how to smack the man he so visibly detests. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, currently riding a tidal wave of support that hovers around 1%, has decided its OK to look nakedly desperate and pathetic, launching a carefully scripted tirade describing Trump as everything from narcissistic to an egomaniac. Stomping his feet like a petulant child character from The Brady Bunch TV show (perhaps it’s not coincidence that he chose his Americanized first name from a serial that included the scolding punch line “Marcia, Marcia , Marcia!”), Jindal informs that the RNC’s pledge be damned, he will not support Trump if Trump is nominated. The latter a vow amplified by ex-New York Governor George Pataki, he whose decidedly un-Reaganesque following apparently consists of his family and whatever staff he can afford. Now there’s a man with a serious political legacy from his time in New York politics.
What’s with these people? One cannot underestimate the degree of ownership these Establishment pooh-bahs possess with political power inside the GOP. While Trump discusses birthright citizenship, the Establishment and their clique of swarming consultants who consistently manage to lose the White House or win it by the skin of their teeth or the Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority obsess about their right to run the GOP. The term “arrogance of power” is made to fit these people, or, to borrow from a Reagan zinger of the day, they are the “fraternal order” Republicans.
So now we come to the CNN Reagan Library debate. A debate taking place in the presidential library of the man Craig Shirley reports was described thusly by the Washington Post when he left the White House in 1989:
“Ronald Reagan has absolutely confounded prediction… Today, at the age of 77, he relinquishes the office so many people thought he never could get, being, it was said eight years ago, too old, too ideological, too conservative, too poorly informed, too politically marginal — in short, too out of it. But there he is, going out in a rare end-of-the-term surge of good feeling, his critics — on key issues, we are emphatically among them — still at a loss as to how to assess and finally even understand this man.”
Got all that? Reagan was leaving “the office so many people thought he never could get, being, it was said eight years ago, too old, too ideological, too conservative , too poorly informed, too politically marginal-in short, too out of it.”
No, The Donald isn’t Ronald. But Donald Trump in fact shares one very big attribute of Reagan’s, which Reagan described of himself as follows when asked why he was so immensely popular with his fellow Americans. Answered Reagan:
“Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I’m one of them? I’ve never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them.”
In fact, that is exactly the sentiment Charlton Heston was describing that is present in all American presidents in their day. They win the presidency of this vast nation precisely because in that moment of time in which their name is on the ballot for the highest office in the free world millions of Americans look at that candidate and “see themselves.”
Incongruous as it may be to the GOP Establishment, as the CNN/Reagan Library debate debuts on a stage that has as its backdrop Air Force One — emblazoned with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA — a Reagan-style outsider is once again attracting the kind of support that literally made this very library possible.
Is Donald Trump Ronald Reagan?
Of course not. No one can be someone else. But does The Donald represent the same world of Americans who have had it with the GOP and Washington Establishments — and in an earlier era elected Ronald Wilson Reagan in two landslide White House victories as their message?
Indeed he does. And suffice to say, there is no better place than right here at the Reagan Library for that message to be delivered.