In remembrance (6/8/04)
I went into the past weekend believing much of my free time would be taken up with reflections on the significance of D-Day, and watching as many TV specials on the great invasion as I could. The only other things I had planned during those two days were to work a few hours of overtime on Saturday, and attend church in my ward on Sunday. My plans changed somewhat at around 2:30 Saturday afternoon, as I was pulling out of the parking lot of the Southeast Juvenile Court in Mesa, and on my car radio heard Dan Rather and a few other newspeople talking about Ronald Reagan. I assumed he had passed away, and of course learned a few minutes later that I had surmised correctly.
Thus was I left with much more to ponder over the historic weekend than I had anticipated. I arrived home and told my wife the news, and then remarked how appropriate it was that the 40th President should pass away on this particular weekend. June 6, after all -- the following day -- would be the 60th anniversary of D-Day, as well as the 20th anniversary of what I have always believed to be the finest speech Reagan ever gave, this one commemorating the 40th anniversary of the same event. Some who were present at that occasion -- as well as others, including myself, who viewed the proceeding from afar -- were moved to tears by his simple, yet majestic and poetic, words. ("These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.")
I think I can best summarize my feelings about Reagan with this story, which I shared with a few of you some time back. About five years ago, a co-worker asked me who I thought had been the greatest American President to serve during my lifetime, and without a moment's hesitation I answered, "Reagan." I then explained to my friend that I had not always felt thus. I have always voted Republican, and my political and social views are both profoundly conservative, and firmly entrenched. So I was naturally a member of Reagan's core constituency, and voted for him both times he ran for President -- with great enthusiasm in 1980, but with some reservations in 1984. In later years the Clinton scandals would badly undermine my faith in the mainstream news media, but in the 1980s I still trusted them, and throughout those years I heard a steady drumbeat of anti-Reagan sentiment being couched as objective news reporting. Reagan, I eventually learned, was an "amiable dunce," if not downright dumb. He was reckless, simplistic, jingoistic, and out of touch with the realities of twentieth-century realpolitik, to say nothing about the needs and aspirations of the American people. He simply did not understand how important it was that we learn to get along with the Soviet Union and live with them. At the time of the stock-market crash in October of 1987, and after a steady news diet of such morsels as the foregoing, I wrote in my journal about what a disappointment he had become in my eyes. Happily, though, I have long since repudiated that sentiment, and in my view, his stature has risen immeasurably as I, along with the rest of the world, have watched and marvelled at what this man of the supposedly "modestly-endowed" intellect and simplistic worldview was able to accomplish. With good reason, his portrait today graces the walls of innumerable homes and cottages in eastern Europe. (In this connection, I remember a speech he gave shortly after I was married. I watched it on the evening news. He was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and against the backdrop of that famous landmark and the Wall that bisected the city, he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" What an inspiring message, I thought; too bad there was no chance of that happening, at least in my lifetime. I was wrong, of course -- just as wrong as the newsmen and pundits who spent much of the '80s wringing their hands over the dire threat Reagan's numbskull ideas represented to the country, planet, universe, or whatever.)
For years I have been trying, without success, to pass along my children my sense of history, of the importance of appreciating the sacrifices others have made in order for us to have our freedoms and our way of life, and of the moral and spiritual values that have made America great, notwithstanding its numerous imperfections. I adhere to the hope they will eventually catch on. Ronald Reagan, of course, would want me to do just that. Colin is in Utah for much of the summer, and I doubt that he will pay much attention to this or any other news item while he is there. But over the years I have told him about Reagan, and what he meant to me, and how fortunate I reckon myself to have lived during his time. He was not perfect, of course, and some of the criticisms directed against him are, in my view, valid, even if Dan Rather and Peter Jennings happen to be the ones giving voice to them. But one does not have to be perfect to be great, and to paraphrase one memorable comment about FDR, I know there were many times when Reagan struck out -- but I know the batting average, too.
Just a few weeks ago, I read a wonderful book that I herewith recommend to one and all. It is How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, by Peter Robinson. I have been trying to encourage my son to read it. [A few months later, incidentally, he did.] I hope I will have better success with some of you. Please trust me on this -- the book is a treasure. You may even want to buy it. The final paragraph is especially moving and poignant at this time.
I am, of course, a religious man, and as such a firm believer in an afterlife with rewards and punishments. Saturday afternoon, shortly after 1 p.m. Pacific time, Ronald Reagan's long and remarkable journey ended, and his turn came to enter the paradise of God. I have spent much of this weekend wondering what kind of reception he got. I feel certain that he would have been greeted by a delegation of his peers, as it were: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Ike. And perhaps Winston Churchill as well. With the ravages of Alzheimer's now behind him for good, Reagan would have entered with his mind fully restored, so in my mind's eye I picture him striding up to his greeters in that brisk, self-assured manner of his, and coming up with an appropriate one-liner for the occasion. There were probably some good witticisms exchanged between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Churchill.
As Edwin M. Stanton said of Lincoln, Ronald Reagan now belongs to the ages. I conclude with one final reflection. I think the closest historical precedent for this week's events was the death and funeral of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969. Both men served as President at a somewhat advanced age, Ike being 70 when he left office, and Reagan 69 when he assumed it. Both were badly underestimated by their contemporaries, but lived long enough to see their statures rising with the passage of time and the gaining of historical perspective. Both passed away after lingering illnesses, and at a time when the nation was embroiled in a controversial and divisive war. When Ike died and was given an affectionate farewell by the nation he loved, Lyndon Johnson, who had recently left office himself, remarked that America would be a lonely land without him. I share the sentiment. After 35 years, I still miss Ike. And in the same way, I will always miss Reagan.