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.
To do that, I realized that I had to move as close to Reagan as possible. So, like thousands of others, I got in my car on Monday morning and headed to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to pay homage to President Reagan's coffin. Once there, I began to ask around.
"I'm here because President Reagan was the model American, the American we should all strive to be," a 20-year-old Air Force Academy student told me.
A young black mother brought her son and daughter with her to honor President Reagan. "There were lots of things I disliked about President Reagan, but I respect the office of the president. Reagan did a lot for the military."
A group of three older women emphatically praised President Reagan: "We came to pay our respects to a wonderful president. He uplifted our country. His optimism, belief that people are basically good, his humility -- he was a great man."
The link between all of the mourners was their implicit patriotism, the belief that America is different from the rest of the world and better, too, and the belief that American dominance means world improvement. It's a simple point but a profound one: Each mourner believed in Ronald Reagan because of his representation of and belief in the idea of American exceptionalism.
Patriotism was the essence of Reagan's presidency and his life. It was loss of patriotism that Reagan most feared: "We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. ... I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit," he said in his 1989 farewell address.
In an America where our morality and the superiority of our way of life are questioned from within, the reaction to President Reagan's passing should renew our hope. Mourners for Reagan are foundations for America's future. May Ronald Reagan unite us in his death as he did in his life: as patriots, dedicated to maintaining a shining city on a hill.
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