In the nine years
since Ronald Reagan wrote his letter to the American people announcing that
he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the public has received only
sporadic updates on his condition. Although he stopped giving speeches
in 1994, the occasional photograph of the president – sometimes looking confused,
but other times looking much the way he did in the White House, except older,
with grayer hair and eyeglasses – was released. Other than that, his
wife Nancy carefully guarded his privacy and shielded him from the public
eye. This left us to speculate about the extent to which Alzheimer’s
had ravaged his mind and to devoutly hope that he still had his lucid moments.
The Reagans’ formerly estranged daughter Patti Davis has now laid these hopes
to rest in a moving essay about her father appearing in People magazine.
In response to questions about whether he still recognizes her, Davis writes:
"It makes me realize that my mother and I have been so protective of his
condition since he became ill - almost a decade now - that it has allowed
people to imagine he is still talking, still walking, still able to stumble
into a moment of clarity. But it would be a disservice to every family who
has an Alzheimer's victim in their embrace to say any of that is true, and
I don't believe my father would want us to lie.”
It’s sad to contemplate, really. The man who was leader of the free
world from 1981 to 1989, who told Gorbachev to tear down that wall, who survived
falls off horses and an assassin’s bullet, no longer remembers his own presidency.
Or, as best as we can tell, much anything else. He is rarely even awake,
confined to a bed and occasionally a wheelchair in a small room of his home.
Many of Reagan’s critics seem to believe that the American people are also
afflicted with something like Alzheimer’s disease, unable to recall the events
of the 1980s or our 40th president’s administration. This is why they
thought they could successfully paint a picture of Reagan as a spiteful man
who cursed at those who worked for them and thought the victims of AIDS deserved
their painful deaths, and then broadcast that portrait into our homes on
national television without anyone protesting.
But they were wrong. Supporters of Ronald Reagan were mobilized like
it was 1980 all over again. They wrote letters and made phone calls
protesting CBS’ inclination to broadcast slurs against a decent, patriotic
American. The series became the talk of the op-ed pages, call-in talk
radio and the political corner of the web. The Republican National
Committee lodged a formal protest against the ahistorical aspects of the
The Reagan regiments prevailed once again. CBS exiled “The Reagans”
to Showtime, where it did little more than dent the consciousness of a few
political junkies with cable. Even Nancy Reagan is said to have forgotten
how beloved her husband was. The vast outcry against “The Reagans”
was, if nothing else, a poignant reminder.
Historians are not the only ones who bicker endlessly over the achievements
of past presidents. At least in the decades immediately following their
service, so do partisans. But this isn’t simply a matter of hero worship
or the advantage of one political party. The ideas and policies of
one presidency, and how the impact of those ideas and policies are evaluated,
have an unmistakable influence on the future direction of the country.
Had Reagan’s tax cuts truly ignited even worse inflation than occurred during
the dark days of stagflation, as the reigning Keynesian economists and many
liberal pundits then predicted, it is doubtful that George W. Bush would
have contemplated across-the-board cuts in marginal income tax rates as he
was ramping up his bid for the presidency in 1999 and 2000. All nine
of the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are for
their part banking that economic prosperity can best be guaranteed by maximizing
tax revenues, even if it requires higher rates, in order to reduce the deficit
and interest rates. The precedent for this policy is found in Bill
Clinton’s administration, and it is exactly what Clinton and his Treasury
Secretary Robert Rubin credit for the economic growth under their watch in
A decade or so ago, I was attending a fundraiser for a Republican candidate
for the state legislature in my hometown. The GOP had pulled out all
the stops to win this race; not only were William Weld and Paul Cellucci
(then governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, respectively) in
attendance but so was then Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour
(soon to be governor of Mississippi). I remember cornering Barbour
during this event and asking him why the GOP didn’t do more to defend Reagan’s
record from liberal misrepresentation.
“I was just on Jerry Williams’ talk show talking about Reagan’s record of
20 million new jobs and the longest peacetime economic expansion in history,”
Barbour drawled as he grabbed jellybeans out of a bowl on a nearby table
and stuffed them into his mouth. “We do talk about Reagan’s record,
but the media won’t report it.”
But the message has been getting out and it matters. Peter Robinson
has written an account of what an enriching experience his service as a speechwriter
in the Reagan administration was in How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Another eminent Reagan-era scribe has sounded similar themes about the former president’s moral example in When Character Was King. Peter Schweizer’s Reagan’s War tells the story of how Reagan’s policies helped hasten the collapse of international communism. Robert Bartley’s Seven Fat Years
remains the definitive retelling of how the supply-side revolution touched
off unprecedented economic growth that raised living standards for millions.
Finally, there has been the publication of Reagan’s own writings in Reagan, In His Own Hand and Reagan: A Life In Letters that challenge the “amiable dunce” myth and offer a window into the president’s thoughts and values.
In the final analysis, Reagan’s legacy is not simply about one man.
It is about what he believed in: The capacity of American strength to accomplish
good, the importance of limits on government, the vitality of the free market
as our vehicle for economic progress and the importance of bedrock traditional
values to our nation. These issues continue to be at the heart of our
political debates today.
Nancy Reagan told an interviewer last year that Alzheimer’s disease tragically
robbed her of her ability to share memories with her husband in their golden
years, because she is the only one who remembers them. It would similarly
be a tragedy if the memories of Reagan’s accomplishments and values were
lost, if the country as a whole had forgotten the lessons of his presidency
as thoroughly as his critics. But here there are many people to share
these memories with, many who would preserve Reagan’s legacy. We remember.
And we will not soon forget.
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.