President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
by Lou Cannon
published by Public Affairs
Ronald Wilson Reagan flew cheerfully into the California sunset on January 20, 1989, basking in the glow of national esteem as he returned home after eight years as president of the United States. In the last Gallup Poll of his presidency Reagan had a public approval rating of 63 percent, the highest for any president leaving office since Franklin D. Roosevelt died early in his fourth term. The New York Times-CBS Poll gave Reagan an approval rating of 68 percent.
In all his guises and careers, Reagan valued the response of the audience more than his critical notices. While few of his political decisions were poll-driven, he cared immensely about his standing with ordinary Americans and relatively little about the opinions of the experts. That was just as well for Reagan, for expert opinion in 1989 gave low marks to his presidency. Soon after Reagan left office, a national survey of academic historians and political scientists conducted by the Siena Research Institute ranked him twenty-second among the then-forty U.S. presidents. Even among the conservatives, Reagan’s normally dependable political base, the verdict on his presidency was far from unanimous. At the time, influential conservatives worried that their hero had conceded too much to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; some were also alarmed about his economic legacy.
The conservatives have since come back to Reagan, either because they have learned to appreciate his legacy or simply because they miss him. They are not alone. As the Reagan presidency recedes into history, Americans of varied political persuasions have become nostalgic about The Gipper, as he was known to the White House press corps. In an August 1999 Gallup poll of adult Americans, a majority of those surveyed predicted that Reagan will rank higher in the history books than other modern presidents. (The poll spanned presidents from Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton, excluding the unelected Gerald Ford.) Fifty-four percent of those polled said Reagan would be remembered as an "outstanding" or "above average" president. Only 12 percent said he would be ranked as "poor." And, although Alzheimer’s disease prevents Reagan from knowing it, he has made headway even with the experts. Political historian James MacGregor Burns, famed for his books about Franklin Roosevelt, wrote in The Washington Post on October 24, 1999, that Reagan will rank with FDR among the "great" or "near-great" presidents of the twentieth century.
Ranking presidents is an imprecise exercise that is more controversial when choosing the mid-range of a list than the top or bottom. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are always in the pantheon. FDR and Theodore Roosevelt usually receive exceptional marks -- in the Siena survey, FDR was first, followed by Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Washington. Historians generally agree that Warren Harding was the worst president. He placed last in the Siena survey, below James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Away from these extremes, historians often have found reasons to revise their opinions of presidents. The significant beneficiaries of a second historical look among post-World War II presidents are Harry Truman, the last Democrat for whom Reagan voted, and Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican for whom he cast a ballot. Truman, unpopular with voters and experts alike when he left office, is now ranked among the near-great presidents. The reputation of Eisenhower, once dismissed as a wartime hero who merely presided over the presidency, has also risen.
Conservatives, overlooking former misgivings in their own ranks, have often claimed that Reagan is underrated in academic circles because of liberal bias. A larger reason for any underestimation of Reagan may be that his legacy in foreign affairs (like Truman’s) shines brighter with the benefit of hindsight. Reagan launched a military buildup premised on a belief that the Soviet Union was too economically vulnerable to compete in an accelerated arms race and would come to the bargaining table if pressured by the West. He preached a message of freedom that he believed would energize the people of Eastern Europe and penetrate within the Soviet Union itself. Many members of the political establishment, including some leading Republicans, thought these views were at best naive. They also were alarmed by Reagan’s provocative comments about communism, particularly his resonant description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." But times changed. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989; by the end of 1991 most nations behind the former Iron Curtain were masters of their destinies, and the Soviet Union, as Reagan had foreseen, had been left on the scrap heap of history.
Although it took longer, the American political and economic landscape also changed after Reagan left office. By the mid-1990s the whopping federal budget deficits that had seemed the most intractable of Reagan’s domestic legacies had become surpluses, partly because of reductions in military spending made possible by the end of the Cold War. Republicans won an unexpected majority in the House of Representatives in 1994, campaigning under the banner of a Contract With America that cribbed freely from Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union speech. This revised version of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, addresses these and other aspects of Reagan’s legacy that were not apparent when the book was published in 1991.
When they returned from Washington, with George Bush ensconced in the White House, the Reagans resumed their comfortable Southern California lifestyle. Long before the second term ended, Nancy Reagan had shopped around for a retirement home that would combine solitude with proximity to their old friends in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. She settled on a spacious, three-bedroom California ranch house on a wooded acre in Bel Air, which was purchased for two and a half million dollars by twenty wealthy investors, some of whom had been helping the Reagans since he was governor of California. The Reagans soon paid the money back. They used their home as a base camp from which to sally out to the world for celebratory events, among them a controversial October 1989 trip to Japan for which Reagan was paid two million dollars for two twenty-minute speeches and a few public appearances.
Back home, Reagan slipped off whenever possible to his mountaintop ranch northwest of Santa Barbara to ride horses, inspect the trails in a blue jeep with a GIPPER license plate, clear brush, and do other manual labor. Nancy Reagan observed that her husband preferred heights to valleys and that he was happy at the ranch. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was also on a mountaintop, this one in Simi Valley with a commanding view of dust-brown hills that had been backdrops for Hollywood westerns in the days when Reagan was a movie star. The library, built at a cost of $57 million, was dedicated on November 4, 1991, at a ceremony that brought together five presidents for the first time in history. Reagan had competed against all the others, losing the Republican presidential nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976, and then beating Bush for the GOP nomination and defeating President Jimmy Carter in 1980. After quipping that he was the only one of the five who had never met a Democratic president, Carter set the tone for the dedication. "Under President Ronald Reagan the nation stayed strong and resolute and made possible the end of the Cold War," he said.
Reagan used the library for ceremonial events but did his work at an office in Century City, a five-minute drive from Bel Air. The office, on the thirty-fourth floor at 2121 Avenue of the Stars, simultaneously satisfied security needs and Reagan’s preference for heights. On smogless days he could go to the western window and glimpse the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Reagan completed his memoirs in this office, where he also received distinguished visitors -- I met Mother Theresa at the elevators as she was leaving and I was arriving for a book interview. Reagan’s work habits followed the patterns of his presidency. He received a daily printed schedule on which he checked off events as he completed them. He cleaned off his desk before he left for the day. He stayed politically active, making twenty-nine speeches or videotapings for Republican candidates in 1990. When I interviewed him for an article in The Washington Post on the occasion of his eightieth birthday on February 6, 1991, Reagan talked modestly about his life’s accomplishments but lavished praise on President Bush for standing up to the "monster" Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf. That night he attended a black-tie birthday celebration that raised $2 million for the presidential library. The featured speaker of the evening was his longtime ally, Margaret Thatcher. Reagan spoke effusively about Thatcher -- and also about Nancy Reagan. Of his wife he said, "Put simply, my life really began when I met her and has been rich and full ever since."
These were still good days for "Ronnie," as Nancy Reagan calls her husband. Although Reagan was slowing down, he looked younger than his years and could still rise to the occasion as a speaker. At the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston he delivered an inspirational speech that contrasted with the hot-button and exclusionary rhetoric of Patrick Buchanan and other speakers and was reminiscent of Reagan’s glory days as the Great Communicator. The speech, which was not shown in prime time, turned out to be Reagan’s last political hurrah. To Reagan’s disappointment, the Bush campaign staff used him only sparingly in the fall campaign. Clinton, with an assist from Ross Perot, routed Bush in California, which Reagan had carried ten times in primaries and general elections for governor and president.
The change from Bush to Clinton occurred during a fateful period of transition in Reagan’s life. In early 1993, Reagan’s friends noticed that he seemed increasingly forgetful and tended to repeat himself. The public received its first inkling of his decline on February 6, 1993, when Reagan repeated a toast to Thatcher verbatim during the celebration of his eighty-second birthday at the presidential library. Guests pretended not to notice, but the number of public events on Reagan’s schedule were soon reduced. Reagan’s last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994, where he looked lost. In August 1994, at an annual visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Reagan was diagnosed as having the incurable neurological disorder known as Alzheimer’s disease. On November 5, Reagan’s doctors issued a statement: "Over the past 12 months we began to notice from President Reagan’s test results symptoms indicating the possibility of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Additional testing and an extensive observation over the past few weeks have led us to conclude that President Reagan is entering the early stages of this disease." This candid medical report was overshadowed by Reagan’s own description of his plight. In a handwritten letter to the American people dated November 5, 1994, he wrote:
My Fellow Americans,
I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Upon learning this news, Nancy & I had to decide whether as private citizens we keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.
In the past Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.
So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.
At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.
Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.
In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, [here Reagan crossed out a word] whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.
I now begin the journey that will be lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.
Nancy Reagan called this a "typical Ronnie letter," and she was right. Reagan had a knack for incorporating his experiences into a universal message and explaining large matters in simple ways. His critics complained that he oversimplified, resorting too often to anecdotes, but most of Reagan’s stories had a purpose. The principal purpose of his farewell letter is stated clearly in the fourth paragraph, where Reagan said he hoped to promote "greater awareness" of Alzheimer’s. No one doubts that such awareness is needed. Four million Americans presently have Alzheimer’s. As the elderly population grows, that number is expected to reach fourteen million within fifty years unless a cure is found, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association. Reagan’s letter was a boon to the association and others involved in promoting understanding of the disease and raising money for its cure and treatment. One who has significantly joined this effort is Ronald Reagan’s first daughter, Maureen.
The Reagans are part of a celebrity culture which assumes that famous people can set a useful example. Years ago, when in the prime of health, Reagan recalled in a conversation how Franklin Roosevelt, crippled by polio, had raised money to fight the disease with his support for the March of Dimes. In a November 9, 1994, editorial headed, "Gift from an Aging Ex-President," the Los Angeles Times compared the impact of Reagan’s action with the attention given AIDS after Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Earvin (Magic) Johnson disclosed he was HIV-positive. The editorial said Reagan had "performed a singular and courageous service in calling attention to this little understood disease of aging." In Nancy Reagan’s view, her husband’s letter brought family members of Alzheimer’s victims out of the closet. "People didn’t recognize that Alzheimer’s was a disease like any other, like heart disease," she said in an interview for this book. "They were embarrassed or self-conscious, and the letter released them to admit that somebody in their family had Alzheimer’s. It’s a beautiful letter."
For Nancy Reagan, who protected her husband throughout forty-seven years of marriage, the letter was at once an end and a beginning. She represented him publicly, trying to do what she thought he would have done, but most of her days and nights were devoted to taking care of the husband she called "my life." As his principal caregiver, she learned about what doctors call "the thirty-six hour day" of Alzheimer’s. "You get a crash course in patience," she said wryly. Ronald Reagan could not, of course, continue "doing the things that I have always done." Within a few months of writing the letter, Reagan was gently told that he could no longer safely ride horses. He made his last visit to Rancho del Cielo in August 1995. The ranch was subsequently sold to a conservative foundation that has promised to preserve it in Reagan’s memory.
But Reagan himself has no memory. "It’s very lonely," Nancy Reagan said. "Not being able to share memories is an awful thing." As the disease progressed, she came to a realization shared by others whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s. "There really isn’t much you can do… and that’s the frustrating part of it,"’ she said. "You know it isn’t going to get better, there’s only one way it can go. So you have to recognize that, and it’s very hard to watch."
Nancy Reagan has borne her burden with the assistance of a nurse (now also a close friend) who chooses to remain anonymous. Reagan has no visitors except occasionally family members, most often Maureen. Nancy Reagan guards her husband, as always. She wants people to remember him as the president who "made Americans believe in themselves again," not as a wasted victim of a mind-destroying disease.
Who can blame her for that?
January 1, 2000
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