By the time of his death,
had literally not been himself for many years. What we used to call
senility, or even second childhood, as if it
were a gentle, almost benign thing, is now recognized as the terrible
curse of Alzheimers, which destroys not only memory but
personality itself before it finally kills the body. It was particularly
painful to imagine the buoyant Reagan in such a decline, to say nothing of
the torment of his wife and family.
It was an ironic
comment on Reagans legacy that his death was greeted in Congress
by calls, in both parties, for more federal funding of Alzheimers
research. Even after eight years of Reagans conservatism, most
Americans automatic response to any problem is to call for
government action, especially federal action. The Great Communicator
himself was never able to communicate the difference between the state
and federal levels under the U.S. Constitution. He understood this vital
distinction, which seems to be lost on George W. Bush. Even Bill Clinton
reflected Reagans influence, if only rhetorically, when he
announced that the era of big government is over. Under
Bush it has become bigger than ever.
Reagan was our last
president to be grounded in the old conservative tradition. He obviously
read Human Events
and was a member of the Conservative Book Club. His
powerful rhetoric drew on the literature and journalism of what is now
called paleoconservatism. As Enoch Powell used to say, in politics you
have to give the voters a tune they can whistle. Reagan did this peerlessly.
The notion that he
was a mere B actor, an amiable dunce, is thoroughly belied
by his own speeches (when he wrote his own), commentaries, and private
letters. Even when others wrote his speeches, they were shaped by his
own philosophy and he delivered them with intelligence and conviction,
again in contrast to Bush.
I knew several of his
speechwriters, particularly Peggy Noonan, a close family friend (my kids
adored her). Peggy found writing for Reagan sheer bliss. She knew that her
eloquence would sound even better when he spoke it than it had in her
imagination. And she wrote most of his finest speeches; some of the
words he is remembered for are actually hers. But he inspired them. There
was a deep bond between these two Irishers.
There was another
thing: Reagan was an unfailingly gracious man. Peggy is hardly my only
source for this; everyone who dealt with him remarked on
his kindness. He had few intimates, but he charmed everyone with
unassuming courtesy and attention.
One of his pals was
my old boss at National Review,
Bill Buckley. Bills famous public
hauteur got him a reputation as a snob which nobody would call
Reagan but, like Reagan, he was loved by everyone who worked for
him. Beyond their shared conservatism, the two men were united by
sweetness and sheer good humor. I saw them together only once, at a big
dinner, where they kept topping each others jokes, bringing down
the house. I was also tickled when Bill would report, with a big grin, that
Ron had roared when he heard or read some of my own
humor is famous, but, in a way, underrated. Despite what liberals called
his Manichean philosophy, his view of the world was happy,
contented, and basically comic. His convictions were inseparable from his
wry, amused outlook. His mind wasnt profound, but his humor was.
He was a great politician because he took politics so lightly. His jokes
about government depended for their effect on his audiences
recognition of their truth. If you could make a joke, you didnt need
This was the way
Reagan reached people. He could reach them with a serious speech too; he
meant what he said, and his sincerity was felt; but a funny quip, in the
vein of Mark Twain or Will Rogers, was never far off. His jokes were
him mock their faith in government with helpless indignation. They could
bear being attacked, but not being made light of. And Reagan was also
disarmingly ready to make light of himself, so it was no use mocking him.
Liberals could give solemn reasons why everyone should hate Reagan, but
nobody who listened to him could hate him.
He had superbly that
great Midwestern quality which in Kansas, I believe, is called joie de
vivre. Before the 1980 New Hampshire primary, a reporter asked Reagan if
it wasnt unfair that a local television station was
showing his old movies. Yes, he replied, my enemies
will stop at nothing.
Discrediting Liberalism and Socialism
extravagant conservative encomia at his passing, Reagan lacked the heroic
virtues. He didnt slash the size and scope of
government, though he might have liked to do so if the odds had been
better; nor did he win the Cold War, though he toned it down
considerably. His rhetoric was more satisfying than his action. After
denouncing government profligacy, he signed the huge spending bills as
they grew every year, alternately cutting and raising taxes, while the
deficits ensured even higher taxes (or worse inflation) in the future.
To hear him talk,
youd have thought someone else was doing all the mischief without
his abetting or approving it. Government was always they,
not we, even when he was leading it. The odd disparity
between his words and his acts was puzzling, but the simple truth is that,
like most politicians, he took the path of least resistance. His convictions
were genuine, but he was unwilling to take the risk of acting on them with
full consistency. If you want to succeed in politics and Reagan did
youd better not disturb the peace of those who count on
their government checks.
now remembering the Reagan years as their golden age. In fact, after the
giddiness of electoral victory, they were years of frustration and
disappointment. Hence the plaintive cry of those years: Let Reagan
be Reagan! His warm personality certainly assuaged the pain, but
pain there was, and plenty of it, when Reagan wasnt being
Reagan. He raised conservative hopes he couldnt have
fulfilled even if hed been willing to sacrifice his career to do so.
And he was far from willing to do that.
Still, one likes to
think he made some permanent difference. He saw that liberalism had
failed, that socialism was bound to fail, and he helped discredit both.
Today the era of big government is far from over; but
though the forces of big government still have enormous momentum on
their side, they no longer have the same initiative they had before Reagan.
He left our bad habits somewhat tempered by his own skepticism. It was
good for us to hear skepticism about government coming from the very
pinnacle of government itself. For all his shortcomings, Reagan left
conservatism more confident, and he remains a happy memory and an
encouraging symbol to those who resist tyranny.
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