Ronald Reagan: Forever young
By: Roger Simon
May 1, 2007 06:47 PM EST
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- The chestnut mare extends a foreleg, paws the ground once and bows its head. Ronald Reagan, sitting tall in the saddle, his cowboy shirt unbuttoned to his bare midchest, removes his battered Stetson with a grand sweep and places it over his heart.
A small breeze blows out of the mountains and moves across the corral, gently disturbing the flowing mane of the horse and Reagan's own hair. Reagan's face is turned into the sun and toward three batteries of network cameras.
An uncertain tenor warbles "The Star-Spangled Banner." A moment later, Reagan rides over to a microphone and begins to speak.
"It is great to see old friends again," he tells the crowd. "And I am sitting on one right now."
We all laugh.
Reagan is wearing silver spurs, ostrich skin boots and Levi's worn -- not bleached -- white. It is 1976, and he invites comparison to the doughy, 13-term congressman from Grand Rapids, who by scandal and accident is currently the president of the United States. Gerald Ford ride a horse? The Secret Service would have to wrestle it to the ground first.
Reagan, though born in Illinois, is the quintessential Westerner, the dreamer of the dream, the endless searcher, never satisfied until he comes to the land where the rainbow ends and the pot of gold awaits.
His speeches, like his campaign slogan -- "Let's make America great again" -- have the virtue of simplicity. His optimism is simply uncrushable. His mother got him into acting, and it is a world he never left.
The America he loves is the America of Hollywood, where our motives are always true, our hearts always pure and our ultimate victory never in doubt.
And even when he left movie-making, he never left the stage. Now, running against the incumbent but unelected Ford in the Republican primaries, Reagan's entire campaign resembles a feature-length film.
He was a performer in an era when we were only beginning to realize that performing was one of the most important things a presidential candidate can do. And all the men assembled in Simi Valley to debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Thursday would like to be like Ron.
It is hard to imagine any of them actually succeeding. Ronald Reagan was more than his policies and positions, more even than his conservative doctrines. Ronald Reagan had charm and grace and the ability to connect with Americans who had never connected with a politician before.
In 1976, it would not be enough. He would lose to Ford. But now it is 1980 and we are in Racine, Wis., in a high school gymnasium. And here I experience the true power of Ronald Reagan.
He has finished his usual speech and has begun to tell a story in a halting, Jimmy Stewart way about an American B-17 badly damaged over France in World War II. The pilot was trying to make it back to England when his belly gunner got badly hit. The flak not only wounded the man but also trapped him in the ball turret, with no way of getting out.
The plane, smoking badly now, kept losing altitude and the pilot announced that everyone had to bail out. But the belly gunner could not move and so he was doomed.
Here, Reagan's voice grows thick with emotion. "The kid in the turret cried out with tears," Reagan says. "And so the pilot sat down on the floor of the plane and said, 'We'll ride it down together, son.' And that pilot -- " here, Reagan's voice actually breaks. "And that pilot was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor -- posthumously!"
His eyes moist, Reagan looks out at the crowd and speaks no more. There is a deathly silence in the gym. And then the house comes down. There is applause, stamping, whistling. People knock over their metal folding chairs as they jump to their feet, tears in their eyes, to applaud this man.
They have understood. On some gut level, they have gotten the message: If things turn bad for America, no matter how bad they get, no matter if the plane is on fire and we are trapped in the ball turret, Ron Reagan will stick with us. He is our pilot. He will show us the way.
And we know deep in our hearts that the plane will not really crash. We know, deep down, it will soar forever and ever with Ron Reagan at the controls.
At the next stop, I wonder how, if nobody was left in the B-17 except the two men who died, Reagan could possibly know what they said to each other (then dismiss the thought as unworthy of the moment). I listen to him tell exactly the same story, his voice growing thick in exactly the same way, his eyes growing moist as they would at stop after stop, time after time, performance after performance.
The power of it is even more awesome when you consider that his chief of staff, Donald Regan, would write eight years later that he had never seen Ronald Reagan have a genuine emotional moment.
Genuine did not matter, however. Reagan was selling a fantasy, a fantasy in which he believed totally. He was asking people to do what they did in a movie theater: to lose themselves in the story. He used to do it on celluloid, and now he was doing it on the stump.
"For Ronald Reagan, the world of legend and myth is a real world," Patrick Buchanan, his former White House communications director, said in 1988. "He visits it regularly, and he's a happy man there." Buchanan meant it as a compliment.
The press would soon learn that much of what Reagan said could not be taken literally. In his 1980 campaign, he muffed statements on Vietnam, civil rights, Taiwan, creationism, the Ku Klux Klan and how trees cause "93 percent" of the air pollution in America.
"The only good news for us at this time," an aide told his biographer, Lou Cannon, "is that we were making so many blunders that reporters had to pick and choose which ones they would write about."
But perhaps his greatest skill as a candidate and a president was to believe utterly in whatever he was saying at the time he was saying it. Reagan never stopped acting and never saw anything wrong with that. Asked when he first ran for office in 1966 what kind of governor he would be, he replied, "I don't know; I've never played a governor."
He also had the actor's flaw, however, of wanting to win over his audience and doing whatever was necessary to do so. According to historian Garry Wills, in 1983 Reagan told the Israeli prime minister he had served in an Air Force unit that had filmed Nazi death camps. It was not true; Reagan never left the United States during his military service. But it was right for the moment. The scene played.
On the eve of his election in 1980, a reporter asked Reagan what people saw in him. "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I'm one of them?" Reagan replied. "I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
Yes, there are issues in this campaign of 2008, as there were in Ronald Reagan's campaigns. These issues are important. They determine war or peace, prosperity or decline.
But Americans rarely elect persons they do not like. Americans rarely elect persons who are detached and apart from them. Which is why every politician today, Republican and Democrat, wants to be Reaganesque.
For all the scandals that would wrack his administration, he was proud of how he handled himself. And at the end of his presidency he said, "And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts."
In 1992, when he wasn't president anymore, he gave a stirring speech to the Republican National Convention in Houston. "I hope you will let me talk about a country that is forever young," he said.
In Simi Valley, outside his library, there is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. He is wearing blue jeans and boots and holding a Stetson in one hand. His face is turned upward into the sun.
And here, on the screen, and in our memories, Ronald Reagan remains forever young.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
From Politico ..
The Legend Continues