Looking Back at Reagan
October 2, 2003
Reading Ronald Reagans newly published
letters reminds me how much Ive always liked him, even
after I stopped admiring him as a president. He was always a modest,
decent, good-humored man, with more common sense and a keener sense of
proportion than most politicians. And he loved a good laugh.
But the very qualities that made
him charming and convivial underscored the absurdity of entrusting him,
or any man, with the awful power of the American presidency. The
superlatives his adulators heap on him seem as wide of the mark as the
exaggerations of his detractors: he was really quite an ordinary man, and
he never pretended to be anything else. He should never have had all that
power, but who should? At least it should be in the hands of a man who
didnt take himself too seriously and wouldnt abuse it as
grossly as most.
He only shocked me once. That
was in 1983, shortly after the grisly bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks
in Lebanon, when he ordered the retaliatory shelling of a village that was
said to be a terrorist stronghold. Such an act was bound to kill
indiscriminately. It was murder! And the Ronald Reagan I knew
wasnt a murderer! This couldnt be happening!
But it did happen, and everyone
seemed to take it for granted that a president had to strike
back at terrorism, however wildly, in order to display American
resolve. It wasnt murder; it was part of the job
Id first paid attention to
Reagan when I was in high school and I heard a recorded speech hed
given, as a spokesman for General Electric, contrasting American free
enterprise with Communism. I thought he was terrific. I was delighted a
few years later when he went into politics and got elected governor of
By the time he ran for president
in 1980 I had high hopes for him. I thought he would lead a repeal of all of
liberalisms gains since the New Deal. I didnt stop to reflect
that I was thinking like a liberal myself hoping for a president
who would be a messianic leader, a charismatic one-man show.
Well, there have been worse
political messiahs. Whatever else he did, Reagan never lost his modest
charm. I heard him speak at a few conservative gatherings, and he never
failed to bring down the house with a great joke. As a British writer
recently observed, Bob Hope couldnt hold a candle to Reagan as a
raconteur. He really brought fun to the White House. I was never prouder
than when I heard hed roared at some of my own jokes.
I was one of his true believers
one of those who cried, Let Reagan be Reagan! in the
conviction that those weaselly moderate Republican advisors, those
disdained men around the president, were holding him back
from acting like the true conservative he was at heart.
I was bound to be disappointed by
his compromises. In time I was so disillusioned with him that I actually
made a joke at his expense: Let someone else be Reagan. But
that wasnt until his second term.
Many principled conservatives
saw through Reagan long before I did if I ever did. He had a way of
convincing sentimentalists like me that he shared our passions, despite
any appearances to the contrary. I was a sucker for him, and maybe I still
am. I think I know better now, but Im not entirely sure.
Strange, the way some men can
make you want to believe in them. Whatever that quality is, Reagan had it.
At one time, about half my friends were Reagan speechwriters, and every
one of them worshipped him. Theyre still writing loving books
That was my generation.
Well never feel that way about another politician. Maybe you can be
pardoned for getting carried away like that once in your life, but in any
case it cant happen twice.
If youre really wise, it
wont even happen to you once. The U.S. Constitution defines the
presidents duties very narrowly, and they dont include
running the economy, bombing villages, or even telling great jokes.
Reagan wasnt a great
president. Great presidents, as usually conceived, are
unconstitutional. I like to think Reagan understood this. At least Im
pretty sure he was the last president who even glanced at the Constitution
once in a while.