On this 100th birthday of the greatest president of the past century or more, here’s what I wrote for the Mobile Register when he passed away:
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Edition: 05, Section: D, Page 04
Balcony scenes of the Ronald Reagan phenomenon
We whom life changes with its every whim
Remember now his steadfastness. In him
Was a perfection, an unconscious grace,
Life could not mar, and death can not efface
— Robert Hillyer
winner of 1934 Pulitzer Prize for poetry
The poet Hillyer was, as far as I know, no relation of mine. When I first read this verse in 1986, I saved it less because I shared his name than because it immediately made me think, even then, of a very much alive President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s steadfastness and “unconscious grace” were what had attracted me more than 10 years earlier, before my 12th birthday in 1976, to mail in a wrinkled dollar bill and join what then was less the “Reagan revolution” than a Reagan insurgency against the established political order.
But it was a strange kind of insurgency, one that sought less to tear down than to build up — or, rather, rebuild, albeit in a forward-looking way, the better America that had existed in the imaginations of its founders.
It’s difficult to remember now how much hoopla was attached to that year’s Bicentennial celebrations. The founders’ vision struck a chord in me, perhaps the first real intellectual chord of my young life – but few politicians then seemed to share a bedrock sense of the limitless hopes expressed by the founders.
Reagan impressed me because his very marrow seemed infused with the founders’ spirit.
In the conservative weekly Human Events, and in a compilation of personal letters titled “Sincerely, Ronald Reagan,” I read of Reagan’s buoyancy and of his still-overlooked compassion. And I was hooked.
In those letters, written during his years as governor of California, was a personality so vibrant and distinctive, a mind so fertile, that there could be no doubt the words came not from some ghostwriter but straight from the man himself. That’s what so much of the commentary on Reagan gets wrong: the notion that Reagan was a simpleton reading lines penned by others.
One of Reagan’s most effective speeches, for instance, was delivered almost off-the-cuff. It came at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, when President Gerald Ford, after barely edging Reagan for the GOP nomination, insisted Reagan join him on the stage and say a few words in a show of unity.
Unprepared, Reagan balked. But Ford kept waving him down from the balcony, so finally the losing candidate came to the podium and started speaking. He used no notes, no TelePrompTer, no other aid. But for some 15 minutes he held spellbound not only the convention hall but millions of viewers nationwide — me among the TV watchers, crying a 12-year-old’s tears of disappointment at Reagan’s defeat — with a startlingly bold call to arms.
Four years later, I stood in a convention balcony as a page to the Republican National Convention in Detroit as Reagan again took the podium in an utterly unplanned appearance. It was around midnight, the night before he was scheduled at long last to accept the Republican nomination.
News anchor Walter Cronkite had startled the nation by reporting secret negotiations between aides for Reagan and former President Ford, for Ford to run that fall as Reagan’s vice-presidential nominee. Reagan, having rejected Ford’s conditions, felt he had to squash the rumors.
So, breaking all precedent, he rushed to the convention hall to announce his choice, one day early, of George H.W. Bush as his running mate. His unscripted appearance was spontaneous and decisive. Forget Cronkite, forget the machinations of campaign managers: Reagan himself was in charge, and he was laying down the law.
Less than three years later, before his tax cuts had been fully phased in, many observers were already declaring his presidency a failed one. With unemployment having peaked at a whopping 10.8 percent, Time magazine concluded a “special report” by predicting the strong possibility that the Reagan term would be “regarded as an aberrational interlude in American politics, rather than the start of a significant change in the direction of government.”
Yet here was Reagan on his 72nd birthday, at the lowest polling point of his presidency, being greeted, upon returning from Camp David, by some 400 college students in the front hall of the White House in a birthday party that clearly caught the president by surprise.
After a cake presentation and 15 minutes of banter, an aide nudged Reagan up the staircase. But a guy in a leg cast yelled for the president to sign his crutch. Reagan stopped at a mini-balcony and said, “Send it up!”
And, having signed the crutch, he just wouldn’t leave. Far from being depressed by his political standing, he was ebullient. The college kids kept yelling questions; the president kept cracking one-liners; the aide kept tugging at Reagan’s sleeve, to no avail.
Somebody mentioned a potential Democratic rival for the 1984 campaign. Reagan yelled: “Bring him on!” And then, smiling all the while, the president gave a cogent explanation of why he would beat all comers. The economy was turning around, he said. Interest rates and inflation had dropped. Supply and demand were rising together. America’s best days were still ahead.
“All right, Ronnie!” yelled one student, losing all sense of decorum. “Way to go, Ronnie!”
The president wasn’t affronted, he was delighted. And, to his aide’s obvious consternation, he stayed another half-hour. It was a Sunday afternoon and his birthday, and the president was determined to keep enjoying a raucous, unscripted free-for-all with a bunch of college kids.
Most of my companions that day were stunned by Reagan’s approachability. But it was no different from the responsiveness evident in the letters from “Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.”
Again and again, Reagan answered notes from students not with form letters but with tightly reasoned arguments for or against their expressed positions, point by point, in unusually personal tones. Sometimes he even adopted their causes, corresponding regularly with a student while taking up her hometown project by calling newspaper editors on her behalf.
But Reagan’s essence never changed. In one letter to graduating seniors of a high school in New Jersey — this coming, remember, from the governor of a state 3,000 miles away — Reagan wrote: “If I read your generation correctly, you’ve been turned off by hypocrisy and dirty politics; you yearn for leaders who will be above partisanship and personal gain. Well, your leaders are among you now — presidents, governors, senators and congressmen, Supreme Court justices — how will you know which ones they are when the time comes to choose?… One generation can change the course of history; can once again ensure that this nation will be a shining golden light for all mankind. An older generation hopes with all its heart you’ll do this.”
In 1985, a friend sneaked me into a big-bucks photo line to get my picture taken with President Reagan. In the six or seven seconds available to shake his hand, I saw that even at age 74, even right up close, this leader had the ruddiness, the hand strength, the vitality and the alertness of a man in his very prime.
It was the vitality of a man who two years later would ignore the advice of most of his aides and negotiate, one-on-one, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a deal to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from the Earth.
The terms were almost exactly those that Reagan had laid out way back in 1981 in a proposal called the “zero option.” Critics had scoffed in 1981. But Reagan never wavered.
In August 1988, as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in my hometown of New Orleans, I again sat in the balcony (again, embarrassingly, fighting off tears) and listened to a soon-to-be-retiring President Reagan give yet another convention tour de force.
“Today,” he said, “we have the first treaty in world history to eliminate an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles. We are working on the Strategic Defense Initiative to defend ourselves and our allies against nuclear terror. And American and Soviet relations are the best they’ve ever been since World War II. …
“[But] our freedom must be defended over and over again. And then again. There’s still a lot of brush to clear out at the ranch, fences that need repair, and horses to ride. But I want you to know that if the fires ever dim, I’ll leave my phone number and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier. Just let me know and I’ll be there, as long as words don’t leave me and as long as this sweet country strives to be special during its shining moment on Earth.”
President Reagan concluded with his familiar “God bless America.” And then he exited the stage. But death cannot efface the mark he left here.