Celebrating Reagan's Fourth

Posted: Jul 05, 2001 12:00 AM
Well, there are the usual things to celebrate (liberty, independence, the pursuit of justice), but also something unusual and unique: a book celebrating Ronald Reagan, his life and accomplishments. It is the handsomest book of its kind ever produced. One hopes desperately that Mr. Reagan, on seeing it on July Fourth, will be able, athwart his illness, to view it with eyes enough to see, and mind sufficient to grasp this tribute to his life and memory.

To clear the decks, I wrote the brief introduction to "Ronald Reagan: An American Hero." I was not paid for it and have no royalty in its sales. It is a production of the Ronald Reagan Library and an extraordinary achievement, done by Tehabi Books of San Diego, and published by the Dorling Kindersley Publishing Co. of New York.

Its plan is, in six sections, to recapture the life of its subject. The chapters are aptly titled: "An Emerging Voice," "An Aspiring Voice," "A Voice for California," "A Voice for America," "A Voice for the World" and "An Enduring Voice." The book sets out to devote about 50 pages of photographs to each of these chapters in Reagan's life, and the magic begins immediately.

The book is, as observed, a work of devotional art. Its design is functional and ingenious, the text unabashedly worshipful, which is expected of Fourth of July celebrations. But in the 263 pages the text is spare and exquisitely presented on the page. Much of it is one- or two-sentence references to Reagan the man and Reagan the president, by scribes and statesmen of an astonishing variety.

Very early on the reader quite forgets that the subject of the book was the chief and conclusive Cold Warrior, especially on reaching the page in which former president Reagan places a medal on former president Gorbachev at the Reagan Library in California. That is a long way from the ashen holocaust predicted by the Quakers, who always counseled unilateral disarmament as the best way to effect coexistence.

Even with so brief a text, a narrative is effected. The section on Ronald's school days summons to mind a letter from the White House to a former teacher: "There are advantages to being elected president. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified as Top Secret." The narrative goes on, and at the very end, in contrast to the bleeded picture pages throughout, there is a single, small, candid photograph capturing a kiss on his cheek on his 89th birthday by his wife, lover, nurse and idol, Nancy Davis Reagan.

Such a book could not have been contrived about any other couple. Just to begin with, there is the physical factor. An indulgent nature went extravagantly to work, endowing him and her with an extraordinary beauty. There is also the photogenic aptitude, matched perhaps by the two Kennedys, but otherwise unrivaled.

Reagan's career, like Lincoln's, was mythogenic, beginning to end. In Reagan's case, the parents were unschooled, the father alcoholic, raising a teen-ager who worked his way through college on an athletic scholarship, a college graduate looking for work during the Depression, buoyed by the very idea of radio coverage of sports events. Reagan excelled at this, even on the day the wires went dead, leaving him to imagine and relate over the radio what was going on in the blacked-out stadium he couldn't see. On to Hollywood, union activity, the governorship and the White House.

We are reminded that his mother had assured him, as a boy, that Providence would care for a dutiful son. Providence looked to one side through several personal and professional reversals, and turned finally away that day in 1994 when, arrested by the final diagnosis, he wrote out his final communication to his countrymen.

That letter is wonderfully reproduced in this volume at the end. The little gold presidential seal, then his famous handwritten letter, which he begins by explaining his motives in giving out news of his health. You see, he's done it before, and Nancy's done it, and some people, prompted by their example, "were treated in early stages and were able to return to normal, healthy lives."

He specifies the problem. "Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage."

The ensuing sentence reads especially well today. "In closing let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home [the next two or three words are scratched out], whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future."

You can't beat that on July Fourth.