The Ben Elliott Story

What was the meaning of the past remarkable nine days? You cannot stop the American people from feeling what they feel and showing it. From the crowds at Simi Valley to the hordes at the Capitol to the men and women who stopped and got out of their cars on Highway 101 to salute as Reagan came home—that was America talking to America about who America is.

It was a magnificent teaching moment for the whole country but most of all for the young, who barely remembered Ronald Reagan or didn’t remember him at all. This week they heard who he was. The old ones spoke, on all the networks and in all the newspapers, and by the end of the week it was clear that Ronald Reagan had suddenly entered the Lincoln pantheon. By Friday it was no longer a question, as it had been for years, whether he was one of our top 10 presidents. It was a question only whether he was in the very top five or six—up there with Lincoln and Washington. An agreement had been reached: the 20th century came down to FDR and RWR.

What is important now is that we continue to speak of the meaning of his leadership. Not bang away about what a great guy he was—there are a lot of great guys—but what huge things he did, not because he had an “ideology” but because he had a philosophy, a specific one that had specific meaning. He was the great 20th-century conservative of America. He applied his philosophy to the realities of the world he lived in. In doing so he changed those realities, and for the better. This is what we must pass on.

I think of the moments of the past week in Washington: George Shultz reaching out spontaneously and with such heart to touch the coffin in the Rotunda. Al Haig too. I was there and saw how moved they were.

Walking into a room in the Capitol Wednesday before dusk: A handful of people were standing together and gazing out a huge old white-silled window as the Reagan cortege approached down Pennsylvania Avenue. The sun was strong, like a presence. It bathed the women in glow. One was standing straight, with discipline. Her beige bouffant was brilliant in the sun. I approached, and she turned. It was Margaret Thatcher. It was like walking into a room at FDR’s funeral and seeing Churchill.

The cortege was coming toward the steps. We looked out the window: a perfect tableaux of ceremonial excellence from every branch of the armed forces. Mrs. Thatcher watched. She turned and said to me, “This is the thing, you see, you must stay militarily strong, with an undeniable strength. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated.”

To my son, whose 17th birthday was the next day, she said, “And what do you study?” He tells her he loves history and literature. “Mathematics,” she says. He nods, wondering, I think, if she had heard him correctly. She had. She was giving him advice. “In the world of the future it will be mathematics that we need—the hard, specific knowledge of mathematical formulae, you see.” My son nodded: “Yes, ma’am.” Later I squeezed his arm. “Take notes,” I said. This is history.

*   *   *

Inside the Washington National Cathedral the day of the state funeral: When the television cameras broadcast from inside the cathedral at 11:30 a.m., everyone—dark clad, many distinguished, all 3,000 of them—stood in complete silence as the doors opened for the Reagan family. It was so silent that all you could hear was the metal point of the vicar’s staff hitting the marble floor as he processed down the aisle. Oh what a sound. It sounded like tradition. Majesty.

But before the cameras were there, an hour and two hours before, it was the last gathering of the clans. The room rocked with affection and laughter. We were hugging and shaking hands. Oh, it was beautiful. I saw Mari Maseng Will, whose job I had taken in the White House when she moved up from speechwriting. In those days—only 20 years ago, and yet in some respects so long ago—there were, as there are now, a half dozen White House speechwriters, and, by what was then fairly recent tradition, one woman among them. I hadn’t seen Mari in years. She looked beautiful and tall but also now distinguished. I asked how she felt after the past few days, our lives passing before our eyes. “I feel young again,” she said. I laughed and said “God, me too.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, all the people of 1984 were there again, and talking and gesturing, but now after all these years they were free, unburdened, fully able, and eager, to appreciate each other. Man, the love and respect in that room.

Just in my line of sight was an extraordinarily wide variety of people in the assemblage. The people inside that cathedral who were not there by virtue of their position—senators, congressmen, diplomats—were people who actually loved the Reagans. My eye went from a grieving Mikhail Gorbachev to Joan Rivers to Jim Billington of the Library of Congress to Oscar De la Renta, from Antonin Scalia to Buffy Cafritz, from Clarence Thomas to Merv Griffin, from Prince Charles to Oatsie Charles.

The Reagans knew everyone; they really reached out into all spheres. The Carters didn’t know everyone; they were Georgia. The Bushes don’t know everyone. The Clintons knew Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t love them; it just embraced them. The Reagans were loved by the ones who knew them. It’s nice when you see this. The last first couple of whom I think it could be said were the Kennedys.

I was walking down the aisle when someone called to me and said, “Peggy, Natan Sharansky”: a small balding man who looks like a shy accountant. He was in the gulag when Ronald Reagan was president. He was in solitary confinement, and when word would reach him of Reagan’s latest anticommunist speech, he would tap out in Morse code a message to his fellow prisoners. And now he was here, a free man, at the funeral of Ronald Reagan, who got him out of the gulag, which was run by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was right over there. Oh life, what a kick in the pants it can be. All I could do as it all flashed through my mind was ask if I could put my arms around him, and all I could think of say was, “Oh, Natan Sharansky.” A beautiful moment for me.

When the funeral was over, when we came down the steps and out of the Cathedral, I saw Tom Daschle and Byron Dorgan and Sen. Reed from I forget where, standing together, talking. I thought: Good for them for being here and showing such respect. So I went over and introduced myself and told them it was great to see them and it was a beautiful day for all of us. They were sweet and friendly and we all laughed and shook hands. This was another good moment to have at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

Many great things were said about Reagan, especially the words of Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady. What a gallant woman to come from England, frail after a series of strokes, to show her personal respect and love, and to go to California to show it again, standing there with her perfect bearing, in her high heels, for 20 hours straight. I wonder if the British know how we took it, we Americans, that she did that, and that Prince Charles came, and Tony Blair. One is tempted to fall back on cliché—”the special relationship.” But I think a lot of us were thinking: We are one people.

*   *   *

The morning Americans stood in line and filed in to see the flag-draped coffin in the rotunda, Sen. Rick Santorum called together some old Reagan hands to speak to senators and staff about the meaning of Reaganism. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to come together. Ed Meese spoke so movingly of the Reagan he knew, the one who came out of the Midwest and into California. Jim Miller, his former budget director, spoke with bracing clarity of the real economic facts of American life before Reagan, and American life after. Richard Perle, who had been in the Defense Department, spoke of Reagan the tough negotiator of the end of the Soviet Union. I spoke on a lesson we can draw from Reagan’s life. C-Span was there and, I’m told, used our remarks as a kind of voiceover for the pictures of people going to the and viewing the flag draped coffin. I felt blessed to be there. This is what I got to say:

    Thank you. I am honored to be here. After the drama of the past few days I am officially farklempt, and I fear I may perhaps lose my voice this morning. I am very happy to see the senators here, but I am happiest to see Orin Hatch, because if I lose my voice he can stand up and sing.

    I speak on Mr. Reagan. In such a big life, such a multifaceted life, there are many lessons. And you can wonder which One Big Lesson you should take away from watching him. I have a thought, but I think it is perhaps personal, or in a way intimate. It has to do with how we live our lives. Which is always the great question of course, How to live?

    Ronald Reagan once summed up John F. Kennedy. He went to a fund-raiser for the JFK Library at Ted Kennedy’s house in 1984. Reagan said of Kennedy, “As a leader, as a president, he seemed to have a good, hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices. . . . [He] understood the tension between good and evil in the history of man—understood, indeed, that much of the history of man can be seen in the constant working out of that tension. . . . He was a patriot who summoned patriotism from the heart of a sated country. . . . He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough—no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle. . . . Everything we saw him do seemed to show a huge enjoyment of life; he seemed to grasp from the beginning that life is one fast-moving train, and you have to jump on board and hold on to your hat and relish the sweep of the wind as it rushes by. You have to enjoy the journey; it’s ungrateful not to. I think that’s how his country remembers him, in his joy.”

    When it was over, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Onassis, walked up to President Reagan and said, “Oh, Mr. President, that was Jack.

    And now I think: that was Reagan, too. And that should be us.

    It’s a short ride. Even the longest life is a little too short. You get some time; what do you want to do with it? You want to bring your love to it. And by bringing that love, be constructive, add to, help build and rebuild just by your presence, just by showing up.

    How did Reagan do this? He felt something was true. He studied it; he questioned it; he read about it. He concluded it really was true. But he knew that what was true was unpopular, and it would hurt him if he held it high. He held it high anyway. That was his way of showing his love.

    Are we a government that has a country, or a country that has a government? We are the latter; hold it high. Can dictators who run a country the size of a continent in the name of a life-killing ideology, can they push freedom around? They cannot. Say it, hold it high. Is there a natural thing within man that tells him God is real and good, real as a rock, good as clean water—is that thing, that knowledge, natural to man? Yes it is. Hold it high. Should we as a people try to rid ourselves of the natural expressions of this natural knowledge? No. We must keep that and guard it and love it. We must hold it high.

    And in the meantime—in the meantime life is not all seriousness and a somber understanding of history, and the work of making life better. Life is beautiful. Life is the best horse on the best ranch and the best ride to see the best sunset. Laugh, have a good time, enjoy it—it’s beautiful.

    And so he said of John Kennedy, “Sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book, I want to say that nothing is ever lost in that house, the White House. Some music plays on. I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, ‘And another thing, Eleanor!’ Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a mustachioed fellow saying, ‘Bully! Absolutely ripping!’ Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. . . . History is not only made by people, it is people. And so history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are.”

    Well, Ronald Reagan’s music plays on. That’s a wonderful thing. I hope tomorrow we give him a standing ovation. I hope speakers say things that make us laugh. And afterwards, have a good lunch with your friends and raise a glass to him, and to his era, and its meaning. And then go, and have a meeting, and make a plan to make our country better. Thank you.

It was wonderful to be in the Capitol that day, the day everyone was coming to see him. The old halls echoed.

*   *   *

I will probably be telling, in this space, more as the weeks and months go by. I hope you don’t mind, but there are so many stories.

Let me end here with one. I had one of the greatest moments of my life in Washington as we laid Ronald Reagan to rest.

The Heritage Foundation and the White House had quickly thrown together a gathering of Reagan alumni in the Old Executive Office Building, which I noticed the old-timers still call “the Old EOB” but which has been renamed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and which President Bush calls “the Ike.” I have a feeling that’s going to stick.

It was a great group. Former secretary of state George Shultz spoke, and domestic advisor Marty Anderson, and Reagan’s final chief of staff, Ken Duberstein. Judge William Clark spoke about Reagan’s religious faith, and Michael Reagan came in, embraced everyone and talked about his love for his father and his gratitude to God. It was beautiful. Karl Rove spoke too, impromptu, about how Reagan remade Republicanism. Dick Cheney came and listened. A lot of people did.

When I stood to speak, I looked out at the hundreds there, and what I saw when I looked at them was what I knew to be true. These people had suffered for Reagan. They were the midlevel people, the special assistants and deputy assistants and counselors in the offices and departments. They had thrown themselves on hand grenades in that White House, they had taken hits. They were conservatives in the 1980s who believed in Reagan. And they were unsung.

Schultz, Anderson, Clark, me—we were sung. But these people . . .

And as I looked out at them I thought of the most unsung hero of all. His name was Bentley Elliott. He went by Ben. He ran Ronald Reagan’s speechwriting department from 1982 through 1986. He hired most of the speechwriters. He shaped and refined Ronald Reagan’s speeches, directing themes and approach. He was a great writer. Ronald Reagan said a lot of famous things, and he said them in part because Ben Elliott got them past the bureaucracy, past the powerful so-called pragmatists, so Reagan could consider them, rewrite them, underscore them. But Ben is the one who got the draft to him.

Ronald Reagan could do and say anything he wanted—he was the president. But every time Ben fought the bureaucracy to get the right draft to Reagan—to get the president’s own conservative views to him—Ben made an enemy. He faced a million swords, and without bureaucratic protection. In politics, friends come and go but enemies accumulate. By the time the bad guys got him, Ben looked like a human pincushion.

We owed him so much. Making his position even more difficult, and painful, there were those on his staff and around him who wanted his job, or who wanted him removed because he didn’t assign them enough speeches. They were right, he didn’t. He didn’t because he was protecting them. Dick Darman, our boss of all bosses, would read a draft from one or another of them and he’d call Ben and say, “If I see another speech by him I will fire him, he is over.” And he meant it. So Ben would hide them to save their jobs.

Only he made one bureaucratic mistake: He didn’t tell them. Because he didn’t want them to feel insecure and oppressed. He didn’t want to add to the bitterness of that tough White House. Ben was like “Mister Roberts” in the 1955 film—he protected the crew but the crew didn’t know, and some didn’t care. Some of the writers were so gifted—Mari, Josh Gilder. Ben worked Josh to the bone. But they were a mixed group, as all groups are. There was one speechwriter who wrote the same speech over and over, or rather he wrote a good one in 1982 and a good one in 1988, and I think he spent the rest of his time getting haircuts. There was another who didn’t write but only kibitzed. When Washington gets around to a National Hack Memorial, and it no doubt will, he’ll probably pose for the statue. Another looked like a malignant leprechaun and spent most of his time on the phone telling columnists what the president was about to say. What a crew. And Ben protected them all. And me, too, and not only because I was a conservative but also because I was the only woman there.

Ben kept it all together. And it worked. When he left the White House he never said a word, never spoke of his experiences, never went on TV for interviews, never wrote a book. He left Washington, burrowed down into corporate communications, worked for two families, and became a serious and ardent Christian, so that his faith, and not politics, became the central animating fact of his life.

At that great gathering of unsung heroes of the Reagan era, I got to speak of Ben. I got to sing him.

And when I said his name the crowd burst into the biggest applause of the day. Because they knew who Ben Elliott was. Becky Norton Dunlop, who had taken her own hits for RR, took to her feet for her own standing ovation.

And Ben Elliott was there. He was in the audience with his wife, Troy, and his daughter Grace, 11, who did not know her father was a great man, or rather might not have known he was great in this particular way.

It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life to give this man a small part of his due. When it was over, we hugged—what a hugging time it has been—and I told him I loved him.

And there followed, for me, the sole unaffectionate moment of the whole three days. In honor of Ronald Reagan, it was candid.

The Hack was in the audience. He approached me in his greasy political style and said, “I’m so glad you honored Ben.” He put his hand on my waist. This was a mistake.

“It’s more than you ever did,” I pointed out. Hack had been on TV with pictures of him and Reagan, recalling with modesty his small contribution to the president. He was right. It was small.

He said that he’d always tried to honor Ben. I pointed out that this was a lie. Nor had haircut boy in his book. Didn’t they know Ben had saved their jobs? They were only there because of him.

At this Hack smiled slyly. “Well, I never wrote a book,” he said.

“No, you’d have to be literate to do that,” I pointed out.

Afterward I told old Reagan hands about our exchange. They would laugh and say, “Yes!” Because, as I say, they knew the Ben Elliott story. And now someone has put it in print.