The old Reagan hands had come together one last time, to sit in a cold rain on a miserable blustery March day to christen a new aircraft carrier.
Nancy Reagan was there to crack the bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Ronald Reagan, riding at anchor in the shipyard at Newport News. The former president, who is 91 this week, was back home in Los Angeles, struggling with Alzheimer's, but he was nevertheless the star of the day.
The old Reagan hands, aware that their era was past, were eager to hear what the new president, George W. Bush, would say, about the day, the ship and the man whose name the mighty ship would carry as it projects American power through seas often hostile to American interests and ideals.
The USS Reagan, the new president said, "will sail tall and strong, like the man we have known. ... We live in a world shaped in so many ways by his will and heart. As president, Ronald Reagan believed without question that tyranny is temporary, and the hope of freedom is universal and permanent; that our nation has unique goodness, and must remain uniquely strong; that God takes the side of justice, because all our rights are His own gifts. ... What he wanted, what he fought for, was a stronger nation in a more peaceful world. ... The values that Ronald Reagan brought to America's conduct in the world will not change."
It was a remarkable fusion of remembrance of the old man, fading quickly in the twilight of a darkling era, and the determination of the new man to meet head-on the challenge of a fresh and even more unforgiving new era.
This revealing account, as if foreshadowing events to come, is one of the rewards of Peggy Noonan's new biography of Ronald Reagan, "When Character Was King." I thought about this the other night, listening to the new president's first State of the Union speech, of how the new president is drawing on the resolve and resources of the old. The new and the old are not necessarily alike, but they share certain circumstances.
Both men share a rock-bottom faith in America. Like several of the presidents who preceded them, both men became president with much hanging in the balance. Peggy Noonan sees Mr. Reagan as a man whose destiny played out within him; George W.'s destiny is playing out, in a clash of civilizations, with all the world watching. Both men arrived in Washington to the jeers and snickers of the wise guys (and a lot of guys who only thought they were wise), making jokes about the intelligence and the savvy of men they regarded as sort of accidental presidents.
In one illuminating aside, Peggy Noonan tells how Nancy Reagan, mortified at the recollection of how, during the campaign, her son Ron had remarked in an interview that the only thing George W. had ever accomplished was to stop being a drunk, called Barbara Bush to apologize. Mrs. Bush replied, with the graciousness she brought to the White House: "Oh, Nancy, don't give it a thought. We can't control our children." She might have paraphrased Winston Churchill's famous answer to Hitler's boast that he would wring England's neck like a chicken: "Some child, some drunk."
The new president clearly saw what the wise guys couldn't. Ronald
Reagan understood, when the wise guys didn't, that the West was dealing with an "evil empire." When he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," several of his own men winced; they had not wanted him to use such blunt and accurate language. At Reykjavik, he would not give in to the Soviet demand that he abandon the missile shield the wise guys derided as "star wars."
Now the evil empire is but a bad memory, the missile shield is a shimmering prospect, and we are all, perhaps even Mr. Gorbachev, glad for it.
We could hear the echoes of Ronald Reagan's true grit the other night as George W. Bush, speaking in the strong presidential voice becoming familiar to the world, struck the note of confidence in language that no doubt made certain faint hearts in Washington flutter, but language the rest of us have been waiting for:
"I will not stand by while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Right on.