The Great Be­liever: A pri­vate let­ter from Ron­ald Rea­gan

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - KAREN TUMULTY karen.tumulty@wash­post.com

Some­thing tugged at Ron­ald Rea­gan on that oth­er­wise slow Au­gust week­end in 1982. “Again at the W.H.,” the pres­i­dent noted in his di­ary. “More of Satur­days work plus a long let­ter I have to write to Loyal. I’m afraid for him. His health is fail­ing badly.”

Loyal Davis, Rea­gan’s fa­ther-in­law and a pi­o­neer­ing neu­ro­sur­geon, was just days away from death.

Some­thing else wor­ried Rea­gan: The dy­ing man was, by most def­i­ni­tions of the word, an athe­ist.

“I have never been able to sub­scribe to the divinity of Je­sus Christ nor his vir­gin birth. I don’t be­lieve in his res­ur­rec­tion, or a heaven or hell as places,” Davis once wrote. “If we are re­mem­bered and dis­cussed with plea­sure and hap­pi­ness af­ter death, this is our heav­enly re­ward.”

Rea­gan, on the other hand, be­lieved ev­ery­one would face a day of judg­ment, and that Davis’s was near. So the most pow­er­ful man in the world put ev­ery­thing else aside, took pen in hand and set out on an ur­gent mis­sion — to res­cue one soul.

“Dear Loyal,” Rea­gan be­gan. “I hope you’ll for­give me for this, but I’ve been want­ing to write you ever since we talked on the phone. I’m aware of the strain you are un­der and be­lieve with all my heart there is help for that . . . . ”

The let­ter dated Aug. 7 is not part of the pres­i­den­tial records pub­licly avail­able at the Rea­gan Li­brary. I came across it ear­lier this year, in a card­board box of Nancy Rea­gan’s per­sonal ef­fects. The li­brary gave me ac­cess to them as part of my re­search on a bi­og­ra­phy of the late first lady.

I quote the let­ter here with per­mis­sion of the Ron­ald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Foun­da­tion and In­sti­tute, which has also al­lowed The Wash­ing­ton Post to re­pro­duce it.

The dis­cov­ery of this in­ti­mate mis­sive, four pages of White House sta­tionery ran­domly tucked in a file, stopped me. You do not have to be a be­liever your­self — or be­lieve that Rea­gan’s poli­cies were per­fectly aligned with Chris­tian teach­ings — to ap­pre­ci­ate what this pri­vate let­ter said about him.

I could sense Rea­gan’s earnest in­ten­sity, how care­fully he had col­lected his thoughts. Not a word of his small, round script was crossed out. Had he writ­ten and re­vised sev­eral ver­sions, send­ing the one that said just what he wanted it to? Near the end were three wa­tery smudges. Spilled cof­fee? Some­one’s later tears?

His lan­guage did not have the speech­writer-pol­ished sheen we as­so­ciate with the pres­i­dent who came to be known as the Great Communicator. It was an in­ti­mate, hum­ble pro­fes­sion of faith. He was “Ronnie,” as­sur­ing his fa­ther-in-law: “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater glory awaits us.”

It was “a mir­a­cle,” Rea­gan wrote, that “a young man of 30 yrs. with­out cre­den­tials as a scholar or priest” had “more im­pact on the world than all the teach­ers, sci­en­tists, em­per­ors, gen­er­als and ad­mi­rals who ever lived, all put to­gether.”

“Ei­ther he was who he said he was or he was the great­est faker & char­la­tan who ever lived. But would a liar & faker suf­fer the death he did?”

Re­li­gious faith, for bet­ter or worse, is a proxy in our pol­i­tics, of­fered as proof that those who lead us start from a foun­da­tion of val­ues. Amer­i­cans seem to ex­pect piety from their pres­i­dents. Polls over the years sug­gest at least 4 out of 10 would not sup­port an oth­er­wise-qual­i­fied can­di­date who does not be­lieve in God.

Rea­gan rep­re­sented a co­nun­drum for so­cial con­ser­va­tives: He had arisen from the Go­mor­rah of Hol­ly­wood, di­vorced, signed the most lib­eral abor­tion law in the coun­try when he was Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor and rarely set foot in­side a church while pres­i­dent.

But he man­aged to mar­shal an army of fun­da­men­tal­ists in 1980 to de­feat a born-again Chris­tian, Jimmy Carter, who taught Sun­day school and who was mar­ried to his home­town sweet­heart.

That elec­tion marked the emer­gence of the re­li­gious right as a force in pol­i­tics. Th­ese days, Rea­gan’s name is reg­u­larly in­voked by evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers as they are pressed to ex­plain the sus­pect bar­gain they have made with a he­do­nis­tic, nar­cis­sis­tic pres­i­dent who seems to be driven by no moral code.

All of this has en­gen­dered a cer­tain cyn­i­cism about what Rea­gan ac­tu­ally be­lieved: Does it re­ally mat­ter what a pres­i­dent car­ries in his heart and how he lives his per­sonal life? Or are the only things to con­sider the size of his tax cuts and the tilt of his ju­di­cial nom­i­nees?

Some sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Trump have even gone so far as to slan­der the 40th pres­i­dent in ser­vice of the 45 th. In July, amid a new round of furor over Trump’s al­leged ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs with an adult-film star and a Play­boy model, Robert Jef­fress, pas­tor of the First Bap­tist Church in Dal­las, chuck­led and told Fox News that “we’ve been here be­fore.”

Rea­gan, Jef­fress de­clared, had been “a known wom­an­izer” in his act­ing days.

The truth is, Rea­gan was dev­as­tated when his first wife, ac­tress Jane Wy­man, left him. In a few in­ter­ven­ing years be­fore he mar­ried Nancy Davis, he had an ac­tive so­cial life, chron­i­cled by the gos­sip col­umns. (“A newly cre­ated bach­e­lor is watched like a hawk, and a sim­ple din­ner date be­comes a new ro­mance,” he once lamented.)

But there is no ev­i­dence that he was any­thing but de­voted to Nancy af­ter they wed. The cou­ple was rou­tinely mocked for their starry-eyed af­fec­tion.

The let­ter to his fa­ther-in-law — the only man who would ever come close to Ronnie in Nancy’s es­ti­ma­tion — re­vealed how mar­i­tal fi­delity in­ter­twined with Rea­gan’s re­li­gious be­liefs. He saw it not only as a source of hap­pi­ness in this life, but a re­ward in the next.

Loyal Davis and Nancy’s mother, Edith, who them­selves ex­pe­ri­enced early di­vorces, were in many ways a model for the Rea­gan mar­riage.

“Loyal, you and Edith have known a great love — more than many have been per­mit­ted to know. That love will not end with the end of this life,” Rea­gan wrote. “. . . all that is re­quired is that you be­lieve and tell God you put your­self in his hands.”

Did the let­ter have any im­pact? Nancy Rea­gan, who was with Loyal Davis when he died, and who saved the let­ter he re­ceived from his son-in­law, would later claim that her fa­ther did turn to God at the end of his life.

Two days be­fore his death on Aug. 19, 1982, Davis sought out a hos­pi­tal chap­lain, and prayed with him, Nancy said. “I no­ticed he was calmer and not as fright­ened.”

A deathbed con­ver­sion? That may have been a daugh­ter’s wish­ful think­ing.

One thing, how­ever, is cer­tain — some­thing that should not be lost as re­li­gious peo­ple ra­tio­nal­ize their po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances to­day: Faith was not an elec­toral strat­a­gem for Ron­ald Rea­gan; his pri­vate words show it was his start­ing point, and the core of who he was.

RON­ALD REA­GAN PRES­I­DEN­TIAL FOUN­DA­TION AND IN­STI­TUTE

A let­ter to Loyal Davis wasn’t the only writ­ten proof of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s faith. Read a let­ter from his mother prais­ing his piety at wapo.st/rea­gan. For Karen Tumulty’s an­no­ta­tions of the Davis let­ter, visit wapo.st/davis.

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