An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Saturday, June 19, 2004

I must confess: I wasn't much interested in the week of mourning for Ronald Reagan. I paused a couple of times, to check out some of the interminable live television coverage of seemingly every little stop and detail of the body's round trip beetween California and Washington DC, but that was it. Although I think that Reagan was a remarkable individual in many ways, and I have never disliked his personna as I perceived it (which is as close as I ever got to the man -- not very!), I am definitely not among those who idolized him (i.e., the crowd who fairly ripped their shirts in recent televised public displays of grief).

I think that the full-on, ritual gravitas of a state funeral and officially-declared days of mourning is not proper, except for a President who dies in the line of duty. After serving honorably to all appearances, Reagan went back to private life, and was a private citizen for 15 years before his death. We learned of his Alzheimers a decade ago, giving those who truly loved or admired the Great Communicator plenty of time to communicate their own long and gentle goodbyes. Instead, to judge from the week's events, it is almost as if this 93-year old had been cut down in the prime of life and in the midst of the most momentous years of his Presidency. Which is to say that I think the week of mourning was a selfish act on the part of Reagan admirers, not to mention those Americans who think that the death of a former President, albeit one who had once been a Hollywood movie-star, should be a cause for national spectacle. So I basically turned away from it (and, in consequence, watched a lot less TV that week). I hope that Mr. Reagan himself, during his lucid moments, did not request state honors. To learn that he had would tarnish my respect for the man.

When Reagan became President, I was a very young man. Indeed, the election of 1980 was only my second Presidential election as an eligible voter; I turned 18 just before the Carter-Ford contest of 1976. I very much liked Reagan's rhetoric of limited government, but as a Californian, I had the advantage of having seen how his rhetoric had translated into actual public policy during his eight years as my State's governor. I had my doubts that the standard-bearer for the party of Nixon (whose memory and disgrace were still very fresh in everyone's minds at the time) would be able to overcome national politics-as-usual to achieve the kinds of things that Reagan implicitly promised in his campaign. To be sure, he had made waves in California, but in what seemed so blunt a manner (owing not to Mr. Reagan's personal style or preference, I hasten to add, but merely the reality that bipartisan, compromise government is a very blunt instrument) that he practically recruited support for Jerry Brown's liberal Democratic takeover of State government in his wake. In short, however focused and sincere Mr. Reagan might have been, I expected that his primary value as President would end up being as confidence-inspiring front-man, rather than as effective government reformer. Rather than a wave-maker, we needed someone who would trigger a major seismic event in national politics. Sensing that it was necessary to attempt to go much further than Mr. Reagan implied he would, only to get even half as far as Reaganites expected him to, I instead cast my vote for the Libertarian that year, and have voted Libertarian ever since.

At his best, even the great Ronald Reagan merely slowed the growth of government and its intrusion into people's business and personal lives. Stronger stuff was needed then, and it is even more necessary now. I remember sending to Mr. Reagan the first letter that I, as an adult, ever wrote to a President. (I once invited Lyndon Johnson to a childhood birthday party: his secretary sent his regrets.) I expressed my disapproval of the President's escalation of the War on Drugs, and I challenged him to say how this was consistent with his promise to "get government off our backs." Although my letter was basically respectful, despite being a passionate dissent, and despite accounts that Mr. Reagan would spend hours, corresponding with "ordinary Americans" about events and issues, great and small, I never received a substantive reply. (I'd like to say that I never received a response at all, but it is possible that I don't remember some "Thank you, Concerned Citizen" form letter that I may have received from his office.)

Mr. Reagan could have earned my vote during his first four years, and didn't. If anything, I was more convinced than ever that my initial instincts were correct, and that President Reagan would essentially pay lip service to the ideals of limited government, while being either powerless to arrest government growth, or even an active participant in making government larger. Reagan's handling of the War on Drugs indicated to me that the latter could easily have been the case. Nevertheless, my impression of Mr. Reagan was that he was fundamentally a decent guy, even a nice guy, and I held no personal animosity toward him. I knew he had to be a lot more on top of things than his detractors charged, and I suspected that he was even a more interesting character than his public personna and official speeches suggested. I have always been fascinated by the brief glimpses of Reagan-The-Man that confidants, contemporaries, and even adversaries have given us from time to time. I didn't expect to see any of those during last week's period of mourning -- and I was not disappointed.

By coincidence, however, I did turn up an unexpectedly rewarding nugget of Reagan biography, while looking online for audio programs to make my daily commute into San Jose more interesting. The Commonwealth Club of California makes a large collection of speeches and panel discussions available online. One was from Peter Robinson -- the Reagan speechwriter who gave us "Mr. Gorbachev ... tear down that wall!" Robinson spoke on January 7, 2004, about Mr. Reagan as the subject and inspiration for his book, "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life." His speech was entitled, "Why Ronald Reagan Matters: Personal Memories of a White House Speechwriter."

Robinson's speech was illuminating and entertaining, giving me new reasons to respect and study the life of "The Gipper"; I will probably get started on the latter project by reading Robinson's book. As a speaker, Robinson is a great speechwriter. Yet ironically, I think it would be better for anyone to hear the recording than read either the transcript, or the book from which much of the speech is derived. The written word doesn't convey enough. Robinson clearly liked and admired Ronald Reagan. You can hear it in his voice, and in the assortment of stories he used to illustrate Mr. Reagan's character and personality, which were peppered by credible vocal imitations of the former President. For instance, here is my favorite -- one which tempers my purist libertarian disapproval of Reagan's failure to really scale back government:

The Cabinet room, spring 1982. The president is meeting his economic advisory board: George Shultz, Milton Friedman, a number of distinguished economists. Up for discussion: whether they should delay or even cancel the third year of the president's cuts in personal income taxes. Arthur Burns, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, argues that the president ought to go ahead and do just that. A deal has been worked out whereby Congress has promised that for every dollar in taxes raised, Congress will cut three dollars in spending. The president listens to Burns, then says, "Arthur, I want you to know how much I enjoy these meetings. They give me a chance to get out of the Oval Office, to talk with you fellows about big ideas, but it would help an awful lot if we talked in these meetings about something I might actually do." Then, Ronald Reagan leaned across to Arthur Burns and said, "Never mention a tax increase in my presence again."

Listening to Robinson's insider anecdotes, I found myself imagining what "The West Wing" might have been like, had it focused on a libertarian-leaning GOP President, instead of a liberal Democrat. Every Wednesday night, I cringe at the policy decisions made by Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet and his minions, yet I like and respect the characters, and wish them well. Perhaps liberal partisans in the audience would feel similarly about a Reagan-inspired President in this mirror-universe "West Wing" of my imagination.

It was good for me to hear Robinson's speech so soon after the Reagan grief-fest. He wrote and delivered it at a time when Reagan was clearly fading, but was still a living member of the human race. While it consequently contains recollections that would be suitable in a eulogy, the speech had, as its overall theme, the celebration of a man's life and his beneficial effect on others. There was none of the treacly or saccharine sweetness, or the feigned, forced respect, and certainly little of the depressing, maudlin mood, in which we were drowned, during the week after Reagan's death. I doubt that Robinson would have chosen to do Reagan imitations during an actual eulogy, so this speech is probably, in several ways, a more complete and honest appreciation of Reagan-The-Man than anyone provided us throughout the whole, melodramatic, post-mortem week. If you liked Reagan, and especially if you didn't, listening to Peter Robinson talk about his old boss is the perfect antidote to the week-of-mourning excess, and, in my opinion, at least, one of the best ways to honor and understand the fortieth President on the occasion of his passing. Highly recommended.


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