He was dying for years and the day came and somehow it came as a blow. Not a loss but a blow. How could this be? Maybe we were all of us more loyal to him, and to the meaning of his life, than we quite meant to be.
And maybe it’s more.
This was a life with size. It had heft, and meaning. And I am thinking of what Stephen Vincent Benet, a writer whom he quoted, wrote on the death of his friend Scott Fitzgerald. “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you’d better.”
Ronald Reagan was not unappreciated at the end, far from it. But he was at the beginning.
* * *
His story was classically, movingly rags-to-riches; he was a nobody who became a somebody in the American way, utterly on his own and with the help of millions.
He was just under 10 when the Roaring Twenties began, 16 when Lindbergh flew the ocean; he remembered as a little boy giving a coin to a doughboy leaning out a window of a troop train going east to the ships that would take them to the Marne and the Argonne Forest.
Ronald, nicknamed Dutch, read fiction. He liked stories of young men battling for the good and true. A story he wrote in college had a hero arriving home from the war and first thing calling his girl. Someone else answered. Who is calling? “Tell her it’s the president,” he said. He wrote that when he was 20 years old.
Many years later, in middle age, he was visited by a dream in which he was looking for a house. He was taken to a mansion with white walls and high sparkling windows. It was majestic. “This is a house that is available at a price I can afford,” he would think to himself. And then he’d come awake. From the day he entered the White House for the first time as president he never had the dream again.
His family didn’t have much—no money, no local standing—and they were often embarrassed. Jack Reagan was alcoholic and itinerant, a shoe salesman who drank when things were looking up. They moved a lot. His mother was an Evangelical Christian who was often out of the house helping others or taking in work at home. (Like Margaret Thatcher’s mother, and Pope John Paul’s too, Nell Reagan worked as a seamstress at home, sewing clothes for money.)
Dutch and his brother Moon were often on their own. From his father he learned storytelling and political views that were liberal for the time and place. In old age he remembered with pride that his father would smack him if he ever said anything as a child that showed racial or religious bigotry. His mother gave him religious faith, which helped him to trust life and allowed him to be an optimist, which was his nature.
He wanted to be an artist, a cartoonist, a writer. Then he wanted to be a sportscaster on radio, and talked his way in. Then he wanted to be an actor. He went to Hollywood, became a star, did work that he loved and married Jane Wyman, a more gifted actor than he. They were mismatched, but she proved in her way to be as old-school as he. In the decades after their divorce and long after he rose to power, she never spoke publicly of him, not to get in the news when her career was waning and not for money. She could have hurt him and never did.
He volunteered for action in World War II, was turned away by doctors who told him with eyesight like his he’d probably shoot his own officer and miss. But they let him join behind the lines and he served at “Fort Roach” in Los Angeles, where he made training and information films. After the war, Ronald Reagan went on the local speaking circuit, talking of the needs of veterans and lauding the leadership of FDR and Truman. Once a woman wrote to him and noted that while he had movingly denounced Nazism, there was another terrible “ism,” communism, and he ought to mention that, too. In his next speech, to industry people and others, he said that if communism ever proved itself the threat to decency that Nazism was, he’d denounce it, too. Normally he got applause in this part of the speech. Now he was met by silence.
In that silence he built his future, becoming a man who’d change the world.
The long education began. He studied communism, read Marx, read the Founders and the conservative philosophers from Burke to Burnham. He began to tug right. The Democratic Party and his industry continued to turn left. There was a parting.
A word on his intellectual reflexes. Ronald Reagan was not a cynic—he did not assume the worst about people. But he was a skeptic; he knew who we are. He did not think that people with great degrees or great success were necessarily smart, for instance. He had no interest in credentialism. He once told me an economist was a fellow with a Phi Beta Kappa key on one end of his chain and no watch on the other. That’s why they never know what time it is. He didn’t say this with asperity, but with mirth.
He did not dislike intellectuals—his heroes often were intellectuals, from the Founders straight through Milton Friedman and Hayek and Solzhenitsyn. But he did not favor the intellectuals of his own day, because he thought they were in general thick-headed. He thought that many of the 20th century’s intellectuals were high-IQ dimwits. He had an instinctive agreement with Orwell’s putdown that a particular idea was so stupid that only an intellectual would believe it.
He thought that intellectuals, like the great liberal academics of the latter half of the 20th century, tended to tie themselves in great webs of complexity, webs they’d often spun themselves—great complicated things that they’d get stuck in, and finally get out of, only to go on and construct a new web for mankind to get caught in. The busy little spiders from Marx through Bloomsbury—some of whom, such as the Webbs, were truly the stupidest brilliant people who ever lived—through Harvard and Yale and the American left circa 1900-90.
As president of the Screen Actors Guild he led the resistance to a growing communist presence in the unions and, with allies such as William Holden, out-argued the boutique leftism of the Hollywood salons. But when a small army of congressional gasbags came to town, Ronald Reagan told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Hollywood could police itself, thank you. By the time it was over, even his harshest foes admitted he’d been fair. In the ‘90s, an actress who’d been blacklisted, her career ruined, was invited by historians of Hollywood to criticize him. She said yes, she remembered him well. He was boring at parties. He was always talking about how great the New Deal was.
He wanted to be a great actor, but it never happened. He was a good actor. He married Nancy Davis, a young actress who’d gone to Smith. On their first date, she told me once, she was impressed. “He didn’t talk, the way actors do, about their next part. He talked about the Civil War.” They had children, made a life; she was his rock.
In 1962 he became a Republican; in 1966, with considerable initial reluctance, he ran for governor of California. The establishment of the day labeled him a right-wing movie star out of touch with California values; he beat the incumbent, Pat Brown, in a landslide. He completed two successful terms in which he started with a huge budget deficit, left behind a modest surplus, cut taxes and got an ulcer. About the latter he was amazed. Even Jack Warner hadn’t been able to give him an ulcer! But one day it went away. Prayer groups that did not know of his condition had been praying for him. He came to think their prayers healed him.
In his first serious bid for the presidency, in 1976, he challenged his own party’s beleaguered incumbent, the hapless Gerald Ford. Ronald Reagan fought valiantly, state by state, almost unseated Mr. Ford, and returned from the convention having given one of the best speeches of his life. He told his weeping volunteers not to become cynical but to take the experience as inspiration. He promised he wouldn’t go home and sit in a rocking chair. He quoted an old warrior: “I will lie me down and bleed awhile / And then I will rise and fight again.” Four years later, he won the presidency from Jimmy Carter after a mean-spirited onslaught in which he was painted as racist, a man who knew nothing, a militarist. He won another landslide.
Once again he had nobody with him but the people.
* * *
In his presidency he did this: He out-argued communism and refused to accept its claim of moral superiority; he rallied the West, rallied America and continued to make big gambles, including a defense-spending increase in a recession. He promised he’d place Pershings in Europe if the Soviets would not agree to arms reductions, and told Soviet leaders that they’d never be able to beat us in defense, that we’d spend them into the ground. They were suddenly reasonable.
Ronald Reagan told the truth to a world made weary by lies. He believed truth was the only platform on which a better future could be built. He shocked the world when he called the Soviet Union “evil,” because it was, and an “empire,” because it was that, too. He never stopped bringing his message to the people of the world, to Europe and China and in the end the Soviet Union. And when it was over, the Berlin Wall had been turned into a million concrete souvenirs, and Soviet communism had fallen. But of course it didn’t fall. It was pushed. By Mr. Know Nothing Cowboy Gunslinger Dimwit. All presidents should be so stupid.
He pushed down income taxes too, from a high of 70% when he entered the White House to a new low of 28% when he left, igniting the long boom that, for all its ups and downs, is with us still. He believed, as JFK did, that a rising tide lifts all boats. He did much more, returning respect to our armed forces, changing 50-year-old assumptions about the place of government and the place of the citizen in the new America.
What an era his was. What a life he lived. He changed history for the better and was modest about it. He didn’t bray about his accomplishments but saw them as the work of the American people. He did not see himself as entitled, never demanded respect, preferred talking to hotel doormen rather than State Department functionaries because he thought the doormen brighter and more interesting. When I pressed him once, a few years out of the presidency, to say what he thought the meaning of his presidency was, he answered, reluctantly, that it might be fairly said that he “advanced the boundaries of freedom in a world more at peace with itself.” And so he did. And what could be bigger than that?
* * *
To be young and working in his White House at that time in human history, was—well, we felt privileged to be there, with him. He made us feel not that we were born in a time of trouble but that we’d been born, luckily, at a time when we could end some trouble. We believed him. I’d think: This is a wonderful time to be alive. And when he died I thought: If I’d walked into the Oval Office 20 years ago to tell him that, he’d look up from whatever he was writing, smile, look away for a second and think, It’s pretty much always a wonderful time.
And then he’d go back to his work.
And now he has left us. We will talk the next 10 days about who he was and what he did. It’s not hard to imagine him now in a place where his powers have been returned to him and he’s himself again—sweet-hearted, tough, funny, optimistic and very brave. You imagine him snapping one of those little salutes as he turns to say goodbye. Today I imagine saluting right back. Do you? We should do it the day he’s buried, or when he lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. We should say, “Good on you, Dutch.” Thanks from a grateful country.