Why We Already Miss the Gipper

When Steve Forbes announced for president last week, he said Republicans have an “empty feeling” about the ’96 race, and it’s true. They’re poised for victory, it’s a Republican year, they’ve already won the Congress, and yet . . . they’re frustrated.

There is an absence, a lack, this presidential year. Will Newt run? Will Colin Powell? Some say the general’s qualities are Reaganesque, but more and more of us see him as our favorite moderate Democrat. There is one Republican out there who unites the party; who has the respect and affection of both its elders and collegiate Dittoheads; and who, in a party riven somewhat by class, is happily claimed as One of Us by Greenwich millionaires, Chillicothe Christians and Little Rock auto mechanics; who soothes the chafing tensions between pro- and anti-gun, pro- and anti-abortion. And he even comes from California.

He is, of course, Ronald Reagan, more than ever the party’s undiminished hero. Seven years out of office, no one has quite taken his place. That’s what the empty feeling is — his big absence.

The feeling is not confined to his party. He is old now and ill, and for the nation, he is a poignant presence. He is in a kind of twilight; we cannot mourn him, but we can miss him, and we do.

Which is not to say his critics have ever stopped trying to tear down his record. But it doesn’t seem to have worked. Almost two years ago, I wrote to him and asked how he felt about it. “I’m not the sort to lose sleep over what a few revisionists say,” the president wrote back. “Let history decide; it usually does.”

Other presidents have loomed large. Nixon loomed, but like a shadow. Reagan looms like a sun, lighting the stage on which the year’s contenders stand. But his light is so bright they squint in the glare and seem paler, washed out.

Part of this is inevitable. We appreciate presidents more than we appreciate candidates. When a man becomes president, we suddenly discover virtues of which we — and they — had been unaware. If he is elected, Dole’s wit will be called not mean but trenchant and deep, a gallant mask for pain; Gramm’s stark and prickly conservatism will become a no-frills tribute to authenticity.

And it’s good to remember we didn’t always love Reagan. In 1980 he was called an aging nuclear cowboy who’d throw Grandma into the snow, a washed-up grade-B former-actor former-governor who’d run twice and lost and whose hands were clasped in victory over a pompadour people said was dyed.

The media and academe saw him not as a statesman but as a joke. And there were failures: he never really cut the size and scope of government, and the deficit grew. There were irritating excesses (glitz, glamour), insensitivities and derelictions.

But for all that, he is missed and admired, still the man you see when you hear the phrase The American President. Why? Because of a combination of qualities in the man and in his presidency.

He set out to make big change. Only a few times a century do you find a president who really changed things. Most presidents, one way or another, have no serious grievance with the status quo. Ford, Carter, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Bush — they made progress or mischief at the margins. But Reagan changed things as much as Franklin Roosevelt — only in the opposite direction. He changed the way we look at the role of government in America. In the 50 years preceding his presideney it was generally agreed (though not generally stated) that the government created wealth and should supervise its distribution. But Reagan said no — it does not create wealth, it is an impediment to prosperity, and it should not be distributing your money, you should. Like it or not, that was change.

He knew what he thought and why he thought it. He had thought it through, was a conservative for serious philosophical reasons, had read his Hayek and his Friedman, knew exactly why “that government governs best that governs least.” And he became a conservative at some cost, in the early ‘60s, when the country was beginning to turn left and the community in which he lived and earned his living, Hollywood, was turning lefter still.

He didn’t hold views to be popular, he held them because he thought they were right. The men around him sometimes used polls to divine which issues to hit hard. That’s not how he used polls. He used them to see if what he was saying was what people were hearing, and to cheer himself up when he was blue. He liked it when the pollsters could tell him 82 percent of the people thought he was doing a good job. He’d breathe the numbers in, stick out his chest and wade back into the fray. But his positions were not poll driven, and the people could tell. So even when they disagreed with him, they still respected him.

He meant it. His beliefs were sincerely held. And because he was sincere, the people cut him some slack where they wouldn’t cut it for others. geagan raised taxes in ‘82 and won by a landslide in ‘84. When George Bush raised taxes, they sent him to Elba.

He was right. He said the Soviet Union was evil and an empire, and it was; he said history would consign it to the ash heap, and it did. Thirty-one years ago in The Speech, the one he gave a week before the ‘64 election and which put him on the political map, he said: high taxes are bad, heavy regulation is bad, bureaucracies cause more ills than they cure and government is not necessarily your friend. It could have been given by half the congressional candidates of 1994-and was.

He had the presidential style. He knew how to act the part. In this he was like FDR and JFK, who also understood the role. He intuited that a certain detachment produces mystery, and mystery enhances power. He was not on television every night. It would have lowered his currency, made him common. He wasn’t Ron-is-the-caller-there-Reagan, and wouldn’t have understood a president who is. He thought it boorish to be in the nation’s face all the time.

He would not have talked about his underwear on TV — they would never have asked him — and he not only wouldn’t feel your pain, he barely agreed to feel his pain. He had dignity. Clinton has the baby boomer’s discomfort with dignity: they equate it with formality and formality with phoniness, and what could be worse than that?

He loved America. He really loved it. His eyes went misty when he spoke of her. It was personal, emotional, protective and trusting. He was an American exceptionalist — we weren’t like other countries, God put us in a special place with a special job, to lead the forces of good, to be the city on a hill John Winthrop saw and hoped for. Clinton grows misty-eyed, too, but over abstractions: justice, harmony. Clinton loves America at her best. But Reagan loved America, period.

It worked. If, when he ran for president in 1980, a little angel had whispered in your ear, “If Reagan wins, by the time he leaves Soviet communism will be dead, the Dow will have passed 2000, taxes will be cut and we’ll all have a more spirited sense of the historical possibilities,” would you have voted for him? Of course you would have.

He won by 10 points that year, but if we’d known what was coming he would have won by 30. The fact is he was a big man who did big things, and that is why we already miss him.