On revealing Reagan
By W. James Antle III
We live in an interesting time when the way a presidential candidate kisses his wife arouses cynicism from the electorate. The Doonesbury set may have mocked the hand-holding and such that took place between Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but no one questioned its sincerity. Nor were many ordinary Americans nauseated by their professions of love for each other, which is not the case with regard to those made by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
For nearly eight years now, we have experienced the most emotive administration in history. Bill Clinton has felt our pain, told us of his weeping, assured us how hard he was working, complained about the pressures of the presidency and the unfairness of his critics, plead for forgiveness from anyone who would listen. Now we have Al Gore donning his earth tones, getting in touch with his feminine side, French kissing Tipper on national TV (question: would Mrs. Gore require a parental warning label be affixed to that broadcast?).
Although this behavior is actually an aberration, it is amazing the degree to which it has been ingrained in the American public as an expectation. Nobody seems to mind when the two leading presidential candidates appear on "Oprah" because the presidency has become a running episode of "Oprah" itself, albeit without Winfrey's talent or class.
Consider how this Baby Boomer conceit confounded Reagan's official presidential biographer, Edmund Morris. Morris had unprecedented access to his subject and his papers. He met with the president more frequently than many of his Cabinet members. He was given carte blanche with Reagan's diary. He had the full cooperation of the president's family and his staff. He also had the example of some fine, and by no means uncritical, writings about Reagan by unofficial biographer Lou Cannon. In fact, by the time Morris' book was done, Reagan had written two autobiographies himself.
The end result was a bizarre if occasionally rewarding semi-fictional portrait of the president in which the biographer inserted fictionalized versions of himself as a character. The book essentially glosses over the more important policies of the Reagan administration, the reasoning that lead to them and their implications for the American people. Instead, it was hopelessly sidetracked by a futile search for the "inner Reagan."
Morris was positively frustrated that he could not get Reagan to reveal more about himself, and was disgusted by his "just the facts" accounts in his personal diaries. He concluded that Reagan must be a simpleton, but could not reconcile that with the weight of his accomplishments. So instead, he simply began making stuff up. The book is interesting and worth reading, but considering the opportunities Morris had, it was largely a waste.
People of Reagan's generation were not obsessed with introspection. They did not speak endlessly about their inner child, sharing their hopes and dreams with strangers, fixating on their feelings to the exclusion of all else. Reagan did not hail from the Me Generation and was not a politician from the Age of Clinton. It is unmistakable what era Morris comes from.
The same frustrations were evident when people were exploring Bob Dole in 1996. The media concluded that someone who did not wear his heart on his sleeve somehow was lacking in a personal touch, as if what the Constitution requires of a chief executive is that he be a national Mr. Rogers. This lack of whiny narcissism is precisely what made the American character so great and what is missing from that American character today. It should be restored, and its restoration is a conservative task.
The inner Reagan that so eluded Edmund Morris has now been revealed to the American people through the publication "I Love You, Ronnie," a collection of love letters and notes written by the former president that Nancy Reagan decided to release. Its contents are decidedly romantic, manifesting a love for Mrs. Reagan that is almost childlike.
It also gets to be a bit cloying, with its references to "Nancy Pants" and signatures such as "Your in Luv Guv." Yet no astute observer of Reagan could have failed to notice his sentimentalism and romanticism. Indeed, his optimism and romantic view of America were among his greatest gifts as president. Moreover, it was obvious how deeply in love he and Nancy were throughout the entirety of his public life.
Reagan's total love for his wife and sentimentality in expressing it are not demeaning. They speak to his qualities as a man and his love for what truly are the most important things in life, characteristics that kept him grounded in the political debates that often elicit self-pity from today's political leaders and inured him to the claims of messianic big government. Nevertheless, I feel these notes should have remained private.
Mrs. Reagan said she wanted her husband's admirers to see "a side of him that he always kept from the public." There is a reason that he kept this side from the public: His love was for her, and these feelings were private, something for the two of them to share. That was something that at one point was understood that the authenticity and meaning of feelings are not diminished by a lack of public broadcast. It is something Reagan understood that we don't today. This apparently includes his wife.
I sympathize with Mrs. Reagan's decision to release these letters and I do not feel anyone should be embarrassed by their contents. To argue otherwise would be pretentiousness. But there was a time when people were expected to love their wives, that was something that the married couple shared, and the character traits that made this possible were displayed publicly without any need for a public display of affection.
We would be a stronger people today if we returned to some of the values of those times. Or at least respected the wishes and paid homage to those who did. Ronald Reagan and his very real love for Nancy deserve better than to be part of the Age of Clinton.
W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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