I have no memories of President Ronald Reagan. I was born during Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984; I was 5 years old when he left office in 1989. But President Reagan always held a heroic mystique for me. Clearly, I owed a debt to him: I never had to live under the threat of Soviet Russia. I never had to worry about communist takeovers in the Western Hemisphere. I never had to live in a world where people lined up at gas stations, where the highest earners were cheated of inordinate proportions of their money, where inflation crippled ingenuity and "national malaise" throttled Americans.
But what was the essence of Ronald Wilson Reagan? What was it about the actor-turned-politician that so gripped the American imagination? It was a question that stumped writers who have tried to plumb Reagan's depths. "Dutch," Edmund Morris' authorized biography of Reagan, is a confused and largely fictitious account of the man.
Christopher Hitchens, the leftist writer, lashed out at Reagan this week: "I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon."
As Nancy Reagan commented, "Much of what has been written was written out of frustration brought about by the writers' inability to get at the man behind the politics, the presidency and the public persona."
Dinesh D'Souza writes that Reagan "won the affection of the American people because he seemed like a 'regular guy,' and they identified with him." While accurate, this statement fails to explain the deep and abiding love of the American people toward Reagan -- after all, Bill Clinton seemed like a relatively normal guy as well (interns and all), but do Americans love him?
Biographies didn't explain the unique relationship between Reagan and America. So I turned to Reagan's past, his film career. I watched Reagan's greatest performance in "Kings Row." His portrayal of Drake McHugh is honest and convincing -- so convincing, in fact, that I wondered whether Reagan was playing Drake or himself. Drake, like Reagan the politician, is an optimistic, happy-go-lucky, determined and blunt character. Either Reagan was an incredible actor, or he was playing himself on screen.
Still, Reagan's comfort level in his own skin couldn't wholly account for his popularity. When I heard President Reagan had passed away on Saturday afternoon, I knew that this week might be a last chance to discover what made Reagan especially American and what made America especially Reaganesque.