Ronald Reagan, Rest in Peace

I went to law school at Georgetown from 1980 – 1983. I don’t think that it is possible for any president to make a greater impression on you than the one in office while you live in DC, and I’ve never found anyone who didn’t live in the DC area the day Reagan was shot who has the kind of feelings that those of us there did and still do. I haven’t been back to DC in 21 years, but I have to admit that there’s a big part of me that feels like the right thing to done is to make it to the Capitol rotunda in the the next few days.
I’ve known for a while that the inevitable announcement of his death would sadden me greatly, in part because of the dignity and eloquence of his last note and the way his family handled the decline and deterioration of his Alzheimer’s disease and in part because of knowing what the disease takes away. It surprises many of my friends that I’m a Reagan fan, but I came to that later in life (after I learned that you could like people and not have to agree with their politics). There was something about that “Mr.. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” that turned my opinion. I wrote a little bit about some of this a while backfor those who might be interested.
In contrast to the noise, yelling, pessimism vitriol, unwillingness to admit mistakes and lack of humor that characterizes today’s political debate, it’s good to see that the Reagan memories bring us back to notions of civility, avoidance of personal attacks, decency, optimism and humor, especially the ability to make a joke at your own expense) that are so characteristic of the Reagan approach. When I saw Walter Mondale Saturday night telling warm stories and laughing while describing his 1984 campaign against Reagan (and compared it to the recent ranting, screaming performances of Al Gore). it made me a little sad about what has changed over the years.
In fact, as I spent most of Saturday evening watching the Reagan coverage, I was struck by how the idea of story-telling is so closely tied to my memories of Reagan. And, such great stories. With endings like, “and then the Cold War was over.”
When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a constant, nagging fear of nuclear war. I remember walking across the campus shortly after I turned 21 and thinking, “I guess I’m going to have to decide what to do after I graduate – I really thought they would have blown everything up by now.” I think surveys from that time show that my view was not uncommon.
It’s hard to underestimate the relief that came as we gradually realized that the Cold War was indeed over and the threat of nuclear annihilation had left us as a daily concern. Part of the funk and depression I’ll always associate with 9/11 was that an equally great, but more random and unpredictable, danger had returned and would stay for a long time and could appear, unlike the nuclear annihilation we imagined in elementary school, without a build-up or warning.
Most of the time, you’ll never find a bigger technology optimist than I am. For me, it’s the communication, creation of communities, connections to others and the ability to share than means the most to me. Frankly, I lost a lot of that optimism after 9/11, when I felt that the trend and momentum of the early wave of the Internet was lost and that we could well slip backward to a different, isolated world with inflexible and intolerant visions.
Lately, my optimism has returned, due to blogs and RSS and the community they’ve created. It’s amazing to me.
But, I have two stories to add about Ronald Reagan.
The first reflects a much different time. In the fall of 1980, I walked over to see a rally for candidate Reagan at the Capitol. One of the benefits of being in DC was that you could see these kinds of things in person and I believe that I’d seen President Carter live earlier that fall (interesting that my Reagan memory is so vivid and I’m not even sure if I saw Carter). I was able to walk up to maybe 20 feet away from the side of the podium (as I said, these were different times, especially in security practices). In fact, Jack Kemp stood beside me and introduced himself to me and shook my hand (a thrill since I was a fan of the AFL Buffalo Bills – not surprisingly, he was shorter than I expected from my childhood memories). When I first saw Reagan, I was surprised that he seemed to be about my height, since he always gave the impression of being a much taller man. That said, I noticed that he had that aura of a larger presence that I’ve later come to know as the “star” factor. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet Reagan and this story has no great punchline. It’s just a nice memory.
The other story is my favorite to tell when people ask why I loved being in Washington while Reagan was President. DC in those days was a land of giants when you think about it: Reagan and Tip O’Neil, Joe Gibbs and John Riggins, Patrick Ewing and John Thompson, the original pairing of Howard Stern and Robin Quivers. Reagan always gave you the feeling that we was a regular citizen in the White House. He always called World Series and Super Bowl champs after the games and you knew that he watched them. In fact, you often knew that your president was doing the same thing that you were. The press was always after him on this. Once they got the story that Reagan watched reruns of Charlie’s Angels in the afternoon. Well, most of us would have just denied it. Not, President Reagan. He said something like, “they are just good detective stories.” As so many people have pointed out in other examples – the perfect, self-deprecating and humorous answer. We all wish we could be so comfortable in our skin to be able to do the same. It strikes me as a good thing to have a president who seems to be one of us.
However, the legacy of Reagan became clear to me in his valedictory speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, a speech crowded out of the limelight by some earlier controversial speeches. I’ve quoted from it at length below, from the point where I realized that I was seeing and hearing something magical and, in its own way, as clear, eloquent and powerful expression of that optimistic and proud strand of Americanism that so many of us, although a little embarrassed to admit, really feel at heart.
Hey, we never get it all the way right, but if we didn’t have this outlook, we’d never keep trying.
Here’s the quote and I recommend that you take the time to give it a read in the next few days:
“Some might believe that the things we have talked about tonight are irrelevant to the choice. These new isolationists claim that the American people don’t care about how or why we prevailed in the great defining struggle of our age — the victory of liberty over our adversaries. They insist that our triumph is yesterday’s news, part of a past that holds no lessons for the future.
Well nothing could be more tragic, after having come all this way on the journey of renewal we began 12 years ago, than if America herself forgot the lessons of individual liberty that she has taught to a grateful world.
Emerson was right. We are the country of tomorrow. Our revolution did not end at Yorktown. More than two centuries later, America remains on a voyage of discovery, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.
But just as we have led the crusade for democracy beyond our shores, we have a great task to do together in our own home. Now, I would appeal to you to invigorate democracy in your own neighborhoods.
Whether we come from poverty or wealth; whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American; Christian or Jewish, from big cities or small towns, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough we must be equal in the eyes of each other. We can no longer judge each other on the basis of what we are, but must, instead, start finding out who we are. In America, our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about.
A decade after we summoned America to a new beginning, we are beginning still. Every day brings fresh challenges and opportunities to match. With each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity. Many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope. Still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence. Let us pledge ourselves to a new beginning for them.
Let us apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America so that everyone among us will have the mental tools to build a better life. And while we do so, let’s remember that the most profound education begins in the home.
And let us harness the competitive energy that built America, into rebuilding our inner cities so that real jobs can be created for those who live there and real hope can rise out of despair.
Let us strengthen our health care system so that Americans of all ages can be secure in their futures without the fear of financial ruin.
And my friends, once and for all, let us get control of the federal deficit through a Balanced Budget Amendment and line item veto.
And let us all renew our commitment. Renew our pledge to day by day, person by person, make our country and the world a better place to live. Then when the nations of the world turn to us and say, “America, you are the model of freedom and prosperity.” We can turn to them and say, “you ain’t seen nothing, yet!”
For me, tonight is the latest chapter in a story that began a quarter of a century ago, when the people of California entrusted me with the stewardship of their dreams.
My fellow citizens — those of you here in this hall and those of you at home — I want you to know that I have always had the highest respect for you, for your common sense and intelligence and for your decency. I have always believed in you and in what you could accomplish for yourselves and for others.
And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.
My fondest hope for each one of you — and especially for the young people here — is that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism. May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here.
May all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never lose your natural, God-given optimism.
And finally, my fellow Americans, may every dawn be a great new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city upon a hill.
Before I go, I would like to ask the person who has made my life’s journey so meaningful, someone I have been so proud of through the years, to join me. Nancy …
My fellow Americans, on behalf of both of us, goodbye, and God bless each and every one of you, and God bless this country we love. “

It strikes me that there are probably not many better legacies to be known for than to be the one who always said: “Our best days are yet to come.”