The Great Comedian
He had odd points of resemblance to Lincoln, who also got his start as an entertainer. As a young man working at a general store, Lincoln would attract people from miles around with his flow of jokes and mimicry. He was so popular that friends urged him to go into politics, where his humor always proved an asset.
Like Lincoln, Reagan also bore the shame of a drunken father whose failure he was determined to avoid. And Reagan too had a rare charm with large audiences, yet was hard to know intimately. At the same time, both men avoided making personal enemies. Petty spite wasnt in them.
In personality, the president Reagan may least resemble is George W. Bush. Reagan could make conservatives laugh at liberals, which was no great feat; but with his gently barbed wit he did something harder: He made even liberals laugh at liberals. Bush only makes them laugh at Bush.
In his unassuming way, Reagan was an electrifying speaker. Id heard him speak in a documentary film well before he went into politics, hawking the free-market system and decrying the fallacies of socialism. It seemed obvious, but no less cogent and satisfying for that.
And he had that wonderful voice so reassuringly American, the perfect instrument for uttering home truths. He wasnt a great actor on the screen too much of a known quantity, too genial and untroubled to be very interesting. C major was his only key. But that was the perfect key for his political career. And it was politics, not cinema, that revealed his comic gifts, including a nice touch of Irish black humor. Yet that same humor, with its impish cynicism about politics, only underlined his convictions.
During his presidency, several of Reagans speechwriters were friends of mine. They were always happy, like composers writing concertos for a masterful violinist. They knew Reagan would make their words sing. Bushs speechwriters have to avoid using words he cant pronounce.
There is a world of difference between Reagans relaxed and genial conservatism and Bushs tense, brittle, humorless version. Though he hated Communism, Reagan would never have gotten this country into a mess like the Iraq war. He was a lucky man who usually knew when not to press his luck. Or, as a friend of mine puts it, when a man is as lucky as Reagan, its not just luck.
For eight years, liberals tiresomely accused Reagan of making war on the poor. He replied to such charges with a naughty irreverence for the dying gods of liberalism, like a choirboy winking at the girls during a long sermon. He reminded you of Muhammad Ali dancing around the ring, landing quick jabs at will on a flat-footed opponent who flails heavily at the air.
The eulogies to Reagans greatness are forgivably overblown; they reflect the great affection he inspired rather than historical perspective. There was no Reagan Revolution: The Federal Government kept growing steadily throughout those eight years. Both his partisans and his enemies promoted, for opposite reasons, the myth that he was slashing government with his conservative cutlass.
Did he bring about the fall of Soviet Communism? No, though he may have hastened it a bit, with a little help from Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa. He was, however, wise enough to realize that Communism would eventually destroy itself without outside efforts to destroy it, and he was willing to risk alienating his anti-Communist base by reducing Cold War tensions. In this his easy-going style served him well. CIA experts and hopeful liberals warned that the Soviet Union was both economically and militarily invincible, but Reagans instincts told him it was moribund.
Reagans real originality, rather strangely for such an old-fashioned man, was stylistic. He was never so absorbed in politics that he failed to see its comedy. And he played it for all it was worth, sharing his essential skepticism through the infallible medium of the belly laugh. Like all rare personalities, he leaves no successors.
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