The Reagans and the Kennedys

It was the summer of 1985, a year after the second Reagan landslide, and there was a particular speech coming up that was important to the president and first lady. It was a fund-raiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, which at the time was relatively new and the only presidential library that didn’t have an endowment. The event was at Ted Kennedy’s house. The senator had asked the Reagans to help out. The families had struck up a friendship a few years before; in 1981 the Reagans had been delighted by Rose Kennedy, whom they had hosted for her first visit to the White House since her son Jack was president.

And so, June 24, 1985. I had worked on the speech, to my delight—JFK had been a childhood hero—and Reagan went off in a happy mood, waving his cards at Pat Buchanan, the director of communications. “I bet you love my speech, Pat!” he said as he bounded out of the West Wing.

And this is what Ronald Reagan said of John F. Kennedy, on a warm dark night in the floodlit garden of Ted Kennedy’s home in McLean, Va.:

“It always seemed to me that he was a man of the most interesting contradictions, very American contradictions. We know from his many friends and colleagues, we know in part from the testimony available at the library, that he was both self-deprecating and proud, ironic and easily moved, highly literate yet utterly at home with the common speech of the working man. He was a writer who could expound with ease on the moral forces that shaped John Calhoun’s political philosophy; on the other hand, he betrayed a most delicate and refined appreciation for Boston’s political wards and the characters who inhabited them. He could cuss a blue streak—but then, he’d been a sailor.

Sen. Edward Kennedy talking with President Ronald Reagan“He loved history and approached it as both romantic and realist. He could quote Stephen Vincent Benét on Gen. Lee’s army—‘The aide de camp knew certain lines of Greek / and other things quite fitting for peace but not so suitable for war . . .’ And he could sum up a current ‘statesman’ with an earthy epithet that would leave his audience weak with laughter. One sensed that he loved mankind as it was, in spite of itself, and that he had little patience with those who would perfect what was not meant to be perfect.

“As a leader, as a president, he seemed to have a good, hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices. He had written a book as a very young man about why the world slept as Hitler marched on, and 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. It is a matter of pride to me that so many young men and women who were inspired by his bracing vision and moved by his call to ‘Ask not’ serve now in the White House doing the business of government.

“Which is not to say I supported John Kennedy when he ran for president, because I didn’t. I was for the other fellow. But you know, it’s true: When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor.

“He would have understood. 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 aboard 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 unthankful not to. I think that’s how his country remembers him, in his joy.

“And when he died, when that comet disappeared over the continent, a whole nation grieved and would not forget. A tailor in New York put a sign on the door: ‘Closed due to a death in the family.’ The sadness was not confined to us. ‘They cried the rain down that night,’ said a journalist in Europe. They put his picture up in huts in Brazil and tents in the Congo, in offices in Dublin and Danzig. That was one of the things he did for his country, for when they honored him they were honoring someone essentially, quintessentially, completely American.

“Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable. Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death, five presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then, and his thousand days in the White House.

“And 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, that nothing is every lost in that 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 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.”

*   *   *

The Reagans tried to say hello to all the many gathered Kennedys—“That was Jack,” Jackie Onassis said, to the president’s delight—and a lovely thing followed, which is what Ted Kennedy said. The next morning he poured out his gratitude in a handwritten letter. “I only wish Jack could have been there too last night,” he wrote. “Your presence was such a magnificent tribute to my brother. . . . The country is well served by your eloquent graceful leadership Mr. President.” He signed it, “With my prayers and thanks for you as you lead us through these difficult times.”

And so grace met grace, and a friendship that had already begun deepened. On Wednesday, the day after Ted Kennedy died, Nancy Reagan gave a telephone interview to Chris Matthews on “Hardball.” “We were close,” she said of their friendship, “and it didn’t make any difference to Ronnie or to Ted that one was a Republican and one a Democrat.” “I’ll miss him very much,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll all miss him.”

Edward Moore Kennedy, 1932-2009, rest in peace.