Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2011 5 Adar I, 5771
Ronald Reagan, Forever Young
By Roger Simon
Ronald Reagan had been born at a time when the Civil War was still America's defining moment — it was Civil War toy soldiers that young Dutch played with as a child — and if he won, he would be 70 within months of taking office.
Only William Henry Harrison had been inaugurated at that age, and Harrison had died of pneumonia six weeks later. There was only one thing Reagan could do about it: Be so young in spirit that nobody would care about his flesh.
He is standing in a shopping mall in central Illinois, one with walkways of fake brick and with cast-iron lampposts that convey a Main Street, good-old-days air. Reagan is concluding his speech. "I just hope," he says, pointing down to a row of crouching kids in front of him, "that these children will know the freedom we once knew."
The applause is warm. Let Jimmy Carter moan about conservation and dialing down and going without. Not Ronald Reagan. He is for letting the good times roll. "Carter says we've got to get used to austerity and sharing and scarcity and giving up luxury," Reagan says to the crowd. "Well, I don't believe that! I think we should cover our children's ears when they hear that kind of talk!"
Which was the essential Reagan. For him, the glass was always half full, never half empty. His optimism was simply uncrushable. His mother had got him into acting, and it was a world he had never left. The America he loved was the America of Hollywood, where our motives were always true, our hearts always pure and our ultimate victory never in doubt.
And even when he left moviemaking, he never left the stage.
Reagan competed in 25 primaries in 1976 and came to the Republican National Convention — conventions were more than TV shows in those days — with 1,070 delegates to Gerald Ford's 1,187. After his defeat, Reagan quoted from what he remembered of a Dryden ballad he had memorized in his youth: "Lay me down and bleed a while. Though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again."
The next year, 1977, he gave 75 speeches. He wrote a newspaper column and did a syndicated radio show. He did not need to rise again because he never really had lain down. He had just kept campaigning. And he gathered around him people who understood two things: selling and television. He figured it might make the difference next time.
Absolute reality did not always matter in the Reagan campaign. Reagan was selling the fantasy of America — 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 Reagan knew how to charm. In 1976, he would climb onto the press bus, go to the last seat and have reporters rotate back one by one to ask him anything they wanted. And virtually each and every night, we would end the day at some small motel, but before we hit the hay — or the bar — Ronald Reagan would have a news conference. The press would sometimes groan, but not Reagan. He was unafraid of the give-and-take.
By 1980, however, Reagan was surrounded by handlers who could not keep up with the stories, often culled from Reader's Digest or half-remembered anecdotes passed along to him at parties, that tumbled from Reagan's lips, and so they insisted he keep farther away from the press. Instead, Nancy Reagan launched a charm offensive, coming to the back of the plane with chocolates and chat for the reporters.
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."
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 campaigns. Sometimes important issues, foreign and domestic. 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 in some way Reaganesque.
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.
There are only two places where things never age: on the screen and in our memories. Now, 100 years since his birth, Ronald Reagan remains forever young in both.
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