Why the people embraced Ronald Reagan
LAST ACT: THE FINAL YEARS AND EMERGING LEGACY OF RONALD REAGAN By Craig Shirley Foreword by Lou Cannon
On Nov. 5, 1994, writes Craig Shirley, Ronald Reagan, having been diagnosed with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, “composed the letter read and heard round the world, announcing his affliction.”
The handwritten letter, released immediately and addressed to “My Fellow Americans,” expressed the hope that his case could help “promote greater awareness of this condition;” the wish “there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience”; and thanks to the American people “for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president.”
“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
It’s that sunset journey of Ronald Regan that Mr. Shirley, author of two well-received books on Ronald Reagan, traces in clean and forceful prose, from the last days in office and the return to California, through the nine and a half years during which the affliction grew, until his death on June 5, 2004, ending with a state funeral in Washington and the burial ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Along the way, Mr. Shirley settles some scores. “Even in his demise, the establishment often reviled him, though the people by and large embraced him.” Why? “As in most cases, Reagan had the answer himself.” Mr. Shirley repeats an anecdote told by the iconic journalist Lou Cannon, contributor of this book’s foreword and author of five highly respected books about Reagan. “‘Would you laugh,’ Reagan reportedly said to a newsman, ‘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.’ ”
“Most of the citizenry ‘got’ Reagan,” writes Mr. Shirley. “The elites did not.” A case in point was the notorious biography, “Dutch,” written by the British intellectual Edmund Morris, who despite unprecedented access couldn’t get his subject, couldn’t believe that Ronald Reagan was exactly what he seemed to be — a man who knew who he was and what he believed.
In desperation, Mr. Morris fictionalized the biography and even inserted himself as a character. The result was a much-panned book, called by John Podhoretz “a work of lunacy.” But in any event, writes Mr. Shirley, Mr. Morris “was never going to write a balanced or favorable biography that would place him at risk of receiving the disapproval of liberal academia.”
In 2001 and 2003, however, with the publication of his letters — “In His Own Hand” and “Reagan: A Life in Letters” — the widely held elitist perception of Ronald Reagan would undergo a dramatic change. These books, writes Mr. Shirley, “showed an erudite, wise, wellread, witty and solicitous man, nothing like a caricature his opponents had tried to portray him as over the years.”
In fact, as the letters demonstrate, Ronald Reagan was very much a man of ideas with a wide-ranging intellect who, no matter how appalling the idea to his enemies, might by any definition be called intellectual
But beyond the intellectual and ideological, the Reagan legacy relies on a solid record of achievement. When he took office, inflation was running out of control, unemployment was rising, the economy was crashing, we were in the grips of a national “malaise,” and we were losing the Cold War.
When he left office, Mr. Shirley points out, “inflation had all been eliminated, interest rates were low, the economy was booming, unemployment was at 5.4 percent, gasoline prices had fallen dramatically, the national mood was confident, and the Soviet Union was in the final stages of losing the Cold War.”
The record speaks for itself. Mr. Shirley sums it up: “‘Ronald Reagan needs no one to sing his praises,’ said Antonin Scalia. And yet thousands and maybe millions did.”
During the week of national mourning, there was a state funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. At the end of the service, writes Mr. Shirley, as the bearers left the cathedral and started down the granite stairs, “a bright ray of sunlight sliced through the grey, overcast sky to momentarily shine on the casket of Ronald Reagan.”
And later, the burial ceremony in California, described by Lou Cannon, “ended with the playing of ‘Taps’ as the sun sank behind the ridge of hills that extend beyond the Reagan Library to the Pacific Ocean. Ronald Reagan — actor and president — would have loved it.” John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).