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RONALD REAGAN


Excerpted from an essay by Peggy Noonan:

In a president, character is everything. A president doesn't have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn't brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn't have to be clever; you can hire clever. White Houses are always full of quick-witted people with ready advice on how to flip a senator or implement a strategy. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks.

But you can't buy courage and decency, you can't rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him. If he does, they will give meaning and animation to the great practical requirement of the presidency: He must know why he's there and what he wants to do. He has to have thought it through. He needs to have, in that much maligned word, but a good one nontheless, a vision of the future he wishes to create. This is a function of thinking, of the mind, the brain.

But a vision is worth little if a president doesn't have the character--the courage and heart--to see it through....

(Reagan) had the vision. Did he have the courage without which it would be nothing but a poignant dream? Yes. At the core of Reagan's character was courage, a courage that was, simply, natural to him, a courage that was ultimately contagious. When people say President Reagan brought back our spirit and our sense of optimism, I think what they are saying in part is, the whole country caught his courage.

There are many policy examples, but I believe when people think of his courage, they think first of what happened that day in March 1981 when he was shot. He tried to walk into the hospital himself but his knees buckled and he had to be helped. They put him on a gurney, and soon he started the one-liners. Quoting Churchill, he reminded everyone that there's nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect. To Mrs. Reagan, it was, "Honey, I forgot to duck." To the doctors, "I just hope you're Republicans." To which one doctor replied, "Today Mr. President we're all Republicans." Maybe he caught Reagan's courage too.

But Reagan the political figure had a form of courage that I think is the hardest and most demanding kind. A general will tell you that anyone can be brave for five minutes; the adrenaline pumps, you do things of which you wouldn't have thought yourself capable.

But Reagan had that harder and more exhausting courage, the courage to swim against the tide. And we all forget it now because he changed the tide. Looking back, we forget that the political mood of today, in which he might find himself quite comfortable, is quite different from the political mood the day he walked into politics.

But he had no choice, he couldn't not swim against the tide. In the fifties and sixties all of his thoughts and observations led him to believe that Americans were slowly but surely losing their freedoms.

When he got to Hollywood as a young man in his twenties, he shared and was impressed by the general thinking of the good and sophisticated people of New York and Hollywood with regard to politics. He was a liberal Democrat, as his father was, and he felt a great attachment to the party. He was proud that his birth of a nation father had refused to take him and his brother Moon to the movie, Birth of a Nation, with its racial stereotypes. And he bragged that his father, Jack, a salesman, had, back long ago when Reagan was a kid, once spent the night in his car rather than sleep in a hotel that wouldn't take Jews. Ronald Reagan as a young man was a Roosevelt supporter, he was all for FDR, and when he took part in his first presidential campaign he made speeches for Harry Truman in 1948.

When Reagan changed, it was against the tide. It might be said that the heyday of modern political liberalism, in its American manifestation, was the 1960s, when the Great Society began and the Kennedys were secular saints and the costs of enforced liberalism were not yet apparent. And that is precisely when goldwaterReagan came down hard right, all for Goldwater in 1964. This was very much the wrong side of the fashionable argument to be on; it wasn't a way to gain friends in influential quarters, it wasn't exactly a career-enhancing move. But Reagan thought the conservatives were right. So he joined them, at the least advantageous moment, the whole country going this way on a twenty-year experiment, and Reagan going that way, thinking he was right and thinking that sooner or later he and the country were going to meet in a historic rendezvous.

His courage was composed in part of intellectual conviction and in part of sheer toughness.

When we think of Reagan, we think so immediately of his presidency that we tend to forget what came before. What came before 1980 was 1976--and Reagan's insurgent presidential bid against the incumbent Republican President Jerry Ford. Ford was riding pretty high, he was the good man who followed Nixon after the disgrace of Watergate; but Ford was a moderate liberal Republican, and Reagan thought he was part of the problem, so he declared against him.

He ran hard. And by March 1976 he had lost five straight primaries in a row. He was in deep trouble--eleven of twelve former chairmen of the Republican National Committee called on him to get out of the race, the Republican Conference of Mayors told him to get out, on March 18 the Los Angeles Times told him to quit. The Reagan campaign was $2 to $3 million in debt, and they were forced to give up their campaign plane for a small leased jet, painted yellow, that they called "The Flying Banana." On March 23, they were in Wisconsin, where Reagan was to address a bunch of duck hunters. Before the speech, Reagan and his aides gathered in his room at a dreary hotel to debate getting out of the race. The next day there would be another primary, in North Carolina, and they knew they'd lose. Most of the people in the room said, "It's over, we have no money, no support, we lost five so far and tomorrow we lose six."

John Sears, the head of the campaign, told the governor, "You know, one of your supporters down in Texas says he'll lend us a hundred thousand dollars if you'll rebroadcast that speech where you give Ford and Kissinger hell on defense." The talk went back and forth. Marty Anderson, the wonderful longtime Reagan aide who told me this story, said he sat there thinking, 'This is crazy, another hundred grand in debt....'

The talk went back and forth and then Reagan spoke. He said "Okay, we'll do it. Get the hundred thousand, we'll run the national defense speech." He said, "I am taking this all the way to the convention at Kansas City, and I don't care if I lose every damn primary along the way." And poor Marty thought to himself, 'Oh Lord, there are twenty-one....'

The next night at a speech, Marty was standing in the back and Frank Reynolds of ABC News came up all excited with a piece of paper in his hand that said 55-45. Marty thought, 'Oh, we're losing by ten.' And Reynolds said, "You're winning by ten!" Reagan was told, but he wouldn't react or celebrate until he was back on the plane and the pilot got the latest results. Then, with half the vote in and a solid lead, he finally acknowledged victory in North Carolina with a plastic glass of champagne and a bowl of ice cream.

Ronald Reagan, twenty-four hours before, had been no-money-no-support-gonna-lose-dead--but he made the decision he would not quit, and at the end he came within a whisker of taking the nomination from Ford.....

We have all noticed in life that big people with big virtues not infrequently have big flaws, too. Reagan's great flaw it seemed to me, and seems to me, was not one of character but personality. That was his famous detachment, which was painful for his children and disorienting for his staff. No one around him quite understood it, the deep and emotional engagement in public events and public affairs, and the slight and seemingly James Baker formal interest in the lives of those around him. James Baker III called him the kindest and most impersonal man he'd ever known, and there was some truth to that....

He had a temper. He didn't get mad lightly, but when he did it was real and hit like lightning....

Reagan is always described as genial and easygoing, but Marty Anderson used to call him "warmly ruthless." He would do in the nicest possible way what had to be done. He was as nice as he could be about it, but he knew where he was going, and if you were in the way you were gone. And you might argue his ruthlessness made everything possible.

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