I have a sister who’s around a decade younger than me. One day, a few years ago, we were discussing the presidency of Ronald Reagan when she made a most interesting comment. “When Reagan was president,” she said, “I always felt safe.” While I didn’t think much of it at the time, I did so later on and most recently with the commemoration of Reagan’s 100th birthday last week.
The Reagan memorials brought inevitable comparisons with other presidents; none more so than the current occupant of the Oval Office. And most of them are almost hysterically funny when you think about it. For example, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for…well I don’t really know why, while Reagan, who, with a little help from his friends, actually won the Cold War, bringing an end to decades of abject fear, was always depicted as a war monger.
But comparisons abounded, including this absurdity from Ron Reagan Jr., who was asked whether Obama — whom he deemed “a centrist guy” — or Sarah Palin was more like his father: “Just on the basis of intelligence, you would have to say Barack Obama. I don’t think my father has anything in common with Sarah Palin whatsoever. I’m a little offended that we even have to talk about Sarah Palin, who has nothing interesting to say.”
Speaking of nothing interesting to say, when one recalls the presidency of James Earl Carter, a faint notion of grandfatherliness comes to mind, although he was 17 years younger than Reagan when inaugurated. Maybe it was this stark contrast between the two men that so clearly brought out one of Reagan’s most important qualities, the one referred to indirectly by my sister; Ronald Reagan exuded an aura of dependability and protectiveness; in other words, he was a manly man.
Now, for anyone under the age of thirty who has no direct memory of the Great Communicator, it’s hard to put this into words. It wasn’t merely his physical appeal; though his jaunty air, his finely tailored wardrobe and his undeniable good looks made him easy on the eyes. His speaking manner was, of course, impeccable; a product of both his Hollywood training and his steady, Midwest twang. No, it was mostly the way he held command of any situation that faced him; confident but not haughty, informed but not pedantic and decisive without arrogance.
Aside from policy, and notwithstanding the erudite opinions of Ron Jr., the biggest difference between Reagan and Obama is this very same manliness, or lack of it. Some presidents have had it and some haven’t. John F. Kennedy, though he was young and virile, didn’t, while the wheelchair-bound FDR reeked of it. For all his bravado and roughish charm, Bill Clinton sorely lacked it, as did the very handsome George “Poppy” Bush. But although reviled by his detractors on account of it, George W. Bush — as well as his Vice President and first Secretary of Defense — had tons of it….just ask our enemies.
All of this is not to say that this lack of old-fashioned manliness makes Obama a bad president — the success or failure of his governance will determine that — it’s just that all comparisons between him and Reagan as personalities are absurd.
Yet we hear that Obama harbors a genuine affection for Reagan and why wouldn’t he? After winning a 49-state re-election landslide, the Gipper’s popularity has only ballooned in recent years, ironically in large part due to the presidential hijinks of Obama himself. A place in American iconography is the aim of nearly every politician, and one desired by the 44th president in a big way. Barack Obama dearly desires the love of his nation and the world. And that’s where the comparisons truly fall short.
For the true measure of a man lies not so much in his desire to be loved, but in his capacity to give love. And Ronald Reagan deeply loved America and her people and wanted the world to share in her love of liberty and freedom. This love manifested itself in his manly opposition to foes both domestic and foreign, resulting in the country’s — and my sister’s — loving reverence toward him. So if he wishes to approach Reagan’s relationship between himself and America, Barack Obama should strive to comprehend this sort of love, if he can.
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