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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 1999 /21 Tishrei, 5760

Cal Thomas

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The unknowable
Ronald Reagan --
MAY I OFFER A POSSIBLE EXPLANATION why Edmund Morris, the authorized biographer of Ronald Reagan, found it impossible to reach the interior of the man? It could be that Morris, being much younger than the 40th president, did not fully comprehend men of Reagan's generation.

My father and his brothers were Reagan's contemporaries. They were mostly modest about their achievements in working our country out of the Great Depression and winning World War II. They weren't the types, as my Dad often said, to "wear our hearts on our sleeves.''

For Reagan, as for the rest of them, performance was enough. It mattered less what you felt and "what was going through your mind at the time'' than what you produced. Why do some think we have a right to know more than that? Why can't Reagan, or anyone else, have a zone of privacy into which no one else may intrude?

People who find it impossible to unlock the secret of Reagan perhaps don't know where to look for the key. Jimmy Carter said we were the cause of our nation's problems. Bill Clinton's critics say the fault is in him. Reagan said something different. He said the solution to our problems is in us. He believed in the inherent decency of the American people.

Reagan wanted to rid the world of communism because he saw it as the ultimate impediment to the freedom we enjoy. He succeeded with the Soviet Union, and millions of souls breathe free today because of him. He wanted to reduce the size and cost of oppressive government at home, and he unleashed the greatest economic boom in history.

Morris credits Reagan with many of these victories, but Reagan's critics, who fought every domestic and foreign policy idea he had, have leaped on Morris' assertion that Reagan was a "dunce'' and "boring.'' Ed Meese, who worked with Reagan for more than 30 years, tells me he never found the man boring or bored.

In their book, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, an Oral History of an Era,''" Gerald and Deborah Hart Strober interviewed scores of people who worked with and knew Reagan well.
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Lyn Nofziger's rejoinder is best: "May I point out that the `amiable dunce' was governor of California twice and president of the United States twice?'' Sir Oliver Wright, former president of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in London, noted, "Most of our scribblers are left-of-center in politics and therefore were politically opposed to him .... They are intellectual snobs, and the president was not an intellectual, so these people couldn't face the fact that he turned out to be a great president.''Reagan's greatness is something Morris acknowledges, though he can't quite get a handle on the reason.

Howard Teicher, who worked in various Defense Department and National Security Council positions during the Reagan years (and who accompanied Robert McFarlane and Oliver North on that ill-fated trip to Iran in what became known as the arms-for-hostages deal), said that contrary to the assumptions of some people, Reagan "did have a very good grasp of the basic issues .... On a number of occasions he asked what I thought were extremely succinct questions about Israeli and Arab politics that were not necessarily rooted in a career of study but in an understanding of human nature.''

Nofziger observed that "Reagan is probably the most underestimated politician of the post-World War II era.'' All of his opponents, he said, wanted to run against Reagan "because they assumed he was not a genius.'' They all lost because "he is smart, quick-witted.'' Nofziger said Reagan had "a good retentive memory for everything but names and faces ... the caricature of him painted by the Democrats was one they wanted to perceive; it was not something that was there.''

The Reagan presidency wasn't about him. It was about us. That, too, was a character trait shared by many from his generation. They put others first because that's what they were taught to do. No wonder that the "me-firsters'' of the following generation have so much trouble understanding him.

In a Newsweek interview, Morris delivers this conclusion on Reagan the man and Reagan the president: "He is ... the bravest and most incorrupt figure I've ever studied.'' That's a pretty good epitaph for anyone, whether a simple man or a president of the United States.

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