Why We Talk About Reagan

A small band of former aides and friends of Ronald Reagan were all over TV this week talking about the former president on his 91st birthday. Our memories and reflections were treated with thoughtfulness and respect by the media. It wasn’t always this way but I’m glad it is now, and I think there are reasons for it.

Journalists feel an honest compassion for Mr. Reagan’s condition—everyone is saddened by the thought that this great man who was once so much a part of our lives no longer knows he was great, no longer remembers us. It’s big enough to be called tragic: this towering figure so reduced by illness. Part of it too is a growing appreciation of Nancy Reagan, who is doing now what she did for 50 years, protecting him, protecting his memory and his privacy. Only now she does it 24-7 at the age of 78, and without the help and comfort of the best friend of her life: him. She told me some months ago how to this day she’ll think of something and want to say, “Honey, remember the time . . .” Or something will happen and she’ll want to ask him what he thinks. And of course she can’t.

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It is also true—I am sorry to be cynical, but I have worked in media, have enjoyed and even shared its cynicism—that the hungry maw of every network and cable news show is hoping, on the day the former president leaves us, to get the Get. To get Mrs. Reagan on the air, or the former president’s children, or his associates in history. The more sympathetic they are now, the better the chance they’ll get the Big Get. And this is understandable. It’s what news people want to do: Get the story.

Whatever the reasons, it’s good to see Mr. Reagan’s memory held high by those who admire and understand him, and have the arguments for his greatness heard with respect in the media.

But let me tell you why we make those arguments as often as we can. When I talk about Mr. Reagan, media people often preface my remarks, or close them, with words like this: “You adore him.” Or, “You of course have great affection for him and so it’s your view that . . .”

These are not unfriendly words, but they’re a warning to the viewer: Take what you hear with a grain of salt. Needless to say the grain-of-salt warning doesn’t come when the subject is, say, JFK or FDR or Martin Luther King, all of whom had friends, supporters and biographers who have spent decades advancing their causes with affection and respect.

And that’s why those of us who talk about Mr. Reagan talk about Mr. Reagan, why we stick to the subject. After he leaves us the media may well conclude that they have no particular reason to listen politely when we speak of him. So we do it now.

And we do it because history is watching. Because young people are coming up. Because new generations rise and look at the past and think: Who was great, who was worthy of emulation, who can I learn from? Children whose parents have not for whatever reason led them or nurtured them sufficiently sometimes feel a particular need to look at the historical past and think: Who can I learn from there as I try to put together a good life?

Who indeed. There is something the past few days I’ve found difficult to communicate on TV, in part because it sounds pretentious in the chatty atmosphere of the newsnook, but it’s at the heart of what I’m trying to say. Laurens van der Post, in a memoir of his relationship with Carl Jung, said that we all forget the obvious: “We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time.” We add to that larger life or detract; we give or withhold, we lead or shrink back, we put ourselves on the line for the truth or we ignore the summons, we meet the great challenge of our age or we retreat to our gardens. It is not bad to tend your garden, and is in fact necessary; you can find wholeness, solace and truth there too. But to tend it and also step forward into history, to step into the life of your age, to step onto history’s stage and seek to take part constructively, to try to make your era better—that is a very great thing. And that is what Mr. Reagan did, and successfully. He helped his world.

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Ronald Reagan’s old foes, the political and ideological left, retain a certain control of the words and ways by which stories are told. They run the academy, the media; they control many of the means by which the young—that nice, strong 20-year-old boy walking down the street, that thoughtful girl making some money by yanking the levers of the coffee machine at Starbucks—will receive and understand history.

But the academy and the media may not in time tell Mr. Reagan’s story straight; and if they do not tell the truth it will be for the simple reason that they cannot see it. They have been trained in a point of view. It’s hard to break out of your training.

Those of us who lived in and feel we understood the age of Ronald Reagan have a great responsibility: to explain and tell and communicate who he was and what he did and how he did it and why. Where he came from and what it meant that he came from there. What it meant, for instance, that he came from the political left, was trained in it, and then left it—for serious reasons, reasons as serious as life gets. And: what it cost him to stand where he stood. That is always one of the great questions of history, of the story of a political or cultural figure—“What did it cost him to stand where he stood?” You learn a lot when you learn the cost.

If we don’t tell the young they’ll never know.

That is why we don’t let the subject pass. It’s too rich with meaning. To speak of Mr. Reagan honestly, to speak of his fabled life and his flaws, is to make a contribution to the young, who 10 and 20 and 40 years from now will be running history, and who will need lives on which to pattern their own, lives from which to draw strength.

The young could do worse. The young often have.