It's a time of mourning in America as the nation grieves the passing of one of its greatest presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan. You could see it on the faces of the thousands of citizens who stood in line for hours to say their last goodbyes, first at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., then at the Capitol Rotunda. They came, young and old, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, from every walk of life and from every racial and ethnic group.
You could see it in the stricken face of one young woman as she solemnly walked around the flag-draped casket, with tears streaming down her cheeks. She looked as if she could barely have been in elementary school when President Reagan left office, yet clearly she felt touched by the man and his presidency. You could see it in the way that firemen stood at attention on an overpass on the L.A. freeway, holding their helmets over their hearts as the president's motorcade passed beneath. These were President Reagan's people, the ordinary men and women who revered the man so many in the elite media and political class mocked and disdained.
As I watched the televised pictures of that long, sad motorcade, I remembered the last time I saw President Reagan in 1986, when I was running for the U.S. Senate from Maryland. He had come to Baltimore to help me raise funds for my campaign, and we traveled together by car to the Inner Harbor from Ft. McHenry, where he had landed in the presidential helicopter, Marine One. Even though I had served the president for three years, first as director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and then as White House director of public liaison, this was a rare opportunity to spend time one on one, and I relished every minute of it.
As we drove along, large crowds gathered to cheer the president, who never stopped waving to those who'd come out to see him, even as he continued his conversation with my husband and me.
"Watch this," he said, as he caught the eye of a plump, middle-aged woman standing on the side of the road. She leaped off her feet, as light as a gazelle. "It doesn't matter how old or how big they are, they always leave the ground when you look right at them," he said, smiling. "It's not me they're seeing. It's the president of the United States. It means a lot to them. They'll be telling their grandchildren about the day they saw the president."
It was vintage Ronald Reagan, whose humility and kindness never ceased to amaze me. I saw it when the president went out of his way to greet the kitchen and hotel staff whenever he gave a speech. No matter how his staff and the Secret Service might be trying to hurry him along, the president would always take time to greet the service workers. This was no mere political act, since most of these people probably hadn't voted for him, and many weren't likely even U.S. citizens. He did it because he had a sense of duty to the public.
He always seemed to understand that he was only a temporary custodian of the highest office in the land, and his own reverence and respect for that office guided his every action. It was the reason he never took his jacket off in the Oval Office. And the president's attitude was infectious. Everyone who worked in the Reagan White House came to work in their Sunday best.
The world will remember President Reagan for having helped defeat communism and for restoring America's faith in itself and its leaders. But I will remember him as the kind and generous soul who never forgot the little people, even when he was the most powerful man in the world.
"Humility," wrote the American philosopher Henry Thoreau, "like darkness reveals the heavenly lights." President Ronald Reagan's great modesty and unassuming nature made him the brightest star among the luminaries of our time.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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