Why the peo­ple em­braced Ron­ald Rea­gan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By John R. Coyne Jr.


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).

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