Next Tuesday would have been Ronald Reagan’s 96th birthday, which is amazing when you consider he is, in a way, more with us than ever: his memory and meaning summoned in political conversation, his name evoked by candidates. I remember 10 years ago when there was controversy over the movement to name things for him—buildings and airports. I was away from home at the time, and I realized that to talk to people in Washington about it, I’d have to land at JFK, take the FDR Drive and go through the Lincoln tunnel.
This is America; we remember our greats. You tell yourself who you are by what you raise a statue to.
The other day a friend asked: What do you think made him so likable to many who disagreed with him and who look back with nostalgia on his White House?
It’s funny that people like to talk about this even though they know the answers. There was the courage to swim against the tide, to show not a burst of bravery but guts in the long haul. The good cheer and good nature that amounted to a kind of faith. The air of pleasure Reagan emanated on meeting others, and his egalitarianism. He thought everyone, from Nobel Prize winners to doormen, equal. Not that he wasn’t aware of status. When he stood behind Errol Flynn for a still photo to promote “Santa Fe Trail,” he knew of Flynn’s towering reputation. Between shots, Reagan kept quietly pushing little piles of dirt together. When he had a mound, he stood on it so that he was, literally, of equal stature. He told the story on himself for years because it was funny, and he believed in laughter. He was a little like Art Buchwald in this; he thought laughter was a value of its own. I think he thought that people who shared a laugh had in fact just voted for something together: something funny and human just got said or done.
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Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” was CBS’s White House correspondent during the Reagan administration, and I asked her what she remembered most. She said, “We reporters would stake out ‘the driveway’ to see who was going in to see the president. In the first few years there was a stream of people who came to argue against his budget-cutting proposals. They would march up that driveway in a huff, smoke coming out of their nostrils as they rehearsed their angry arguments about why he was destroying the lives of poor people, or schoolkids.
“I remember specifically a group of mayors from big cities, livid about cuts to their welfare programs, school-lunch programs, etc. They were there to give the president a scolding; they were going to tell him. And in they’d march. Two hours later, out they came. We were all ready with the cameras and the mikes to get their version of the telling off. But they were all little lambs, subdued. . . . He had charmed them. . . . The mayors told us Reagan agreed with them. That they had persuaded him. . . .
“Thirty minutes later Larry Speakes was in the press room telling us the numbers would not in fact change. The mayors had ‘misunderstood’ the president. Still, I’ll bet anything if you talked to those mayors today, they would tell you Reagan was a great guy.”
She mentioned “his personal touch, his gallantry.” You knew he was a good man and you knew he meant it. So you understood how he could be the biggest supporter of FDR and the New Deal in 1944, and the most persuasive voice for Barry Goldwater in 1964. He’d thought it through and changed, not overnight but in time and with effort. He could change his mind on abortion in the same way, and not because he feared the base. Reagan was the base.
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Last week I was at a gathering of old Reagan hands and I asked aloud if something that I’d heard might be true. It was that Mikhail Gorbachev now lives in California and has a pool. The minute I said it, a longtime Reagan friend laughed. He knew where I was going. Reagan always said what he really wanted to do with a Russian premier was get him in a helicopter, ride over Southern California, point down at the million little houses and million little pools, and say “Mr. Gorbachev, that’s how the proletariat lives in America.”
But it wasn’t true. Mr. Gorbachev lives in Moscow, where he has a think tank, a former cabinet secretary told me. Mr. Gorbachev had given the secretary a tour, and proudly noted that he paid for the building by renting out two floors. “Gorbachev has discovered the free market,” the secretary said.
It was almost as good.
This led the Reagan intimate to remember being on a private plane with him one day. They had a steak and fine wine. “Reagan said to me, ‘You know, I believe everyone in America can have these things.’ I said, ‘You really believe that?’ Reagan said, ‘Yes, I do.’ “ The intimate said to me, “See, I don’t believe that, that anyone here can do it.” Then he paused. “But it’s good to have a president who does.”
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Lately we are hearing of President Reagan’s famous 11th commandment: “Speak no ill of a fellow Republican.” It’s a good rule for both parties, but it’s good also to remember how he approached it in practice. Ronald Reagan turned his own party upside down, enraged its establishment, and threatened its immediate future when, in 1976, he mounted a fierce challenge to an incumbent Republican president. He ran full and hard against Jerry Ford and it was bitter—the stakes were high, the issue freedom at home and abroad. Reagan lost, his challenge doomed Ford in the general election, and four years later Reagan roared back. And when he won the nomination he turned around and seriously considered as his running mate . . . Jerry Ford.
When he ran against Ford, it wasn’t personal. And when he almost picked Ford as his vice president, that wasn’t personal either. It was more like this: This is America. We have been arguing about everything for 200 years. It’s what we do. It’s our glory.
Our politics then were grimmer yet had a lighter touch. The Soviets could nuke us tomorrow; let’s have a hellacious brawl. It was a serious time, but I don’t think we were in general so somber, so locked in. The 11th commandment meant the fight should never be mean, low or unnecessarily injurious to the person, or the party. But a fight could be waged—should be waged—over big, big things.
That he knew that is part of why we remember him as great. It’s part of why when you next fly to Washington, you’ll land at Reagan National Airport.