Before I comment on our 40th president, let me note that yesterday morning, while running on the White Saddle trail above Monrovia, two of my companions and I came face to face with a bear. We were within forty feet of the creature, and it blocked our path as we careened downhill. We all came to a sudden stop. The bear (full-sized, but of indeterminate sex) didn’t move. My friend Sharon shrieked and started back up the hill. I was transfixed, having always wanted to see a bear on a trail run, and so I began to slowly walk towards it (I wasn’t really thinking very clearly). My buddy Mark was the calmest (he was the only one to have had past bear/running experiences.) Mark held his ground and began to shout loudly at the bear, and eventually I joined in, yelling “go home” (I couldn’t think of anything else, though given where we were, it was a wildly inappropriate thing to say!) After watching us with mild interest for a moment, the splendid creature walked off the trail and rumbled down into the canyon. It made my day, though next time, I will need to be more cautious. It wasn’t that I was brave — I’m not — it was that I was so enchanted by seeing something so damn cute that I wanted to get as close as I could. Sigh. I’m such a sucker for adorable, furry mammals of any size.
It occurs to me that my youngest students at the college (most of whom were born in the mid-1980s) have little or no memory of Ronald Reagan. Yesterday, watching coverage of his death on various cable news channels (while also enduring the heartbreak of the Belmont Stakes), I was struck by how many memories hearing that marvelous voice of his brought back for me! I hadn’t heard his speeches in years, and last night, there they all were. I was thirteen when he was inaugurated, twenty-one when he left office. He was the president of my youth and of the years of my political awakening, and as a result, had a huge impact upon my politics.
I walked precincts for Carter-Mondale in 1976, as a nine year-old boy. In 1980, I wore an “Anderson of Illinois” button; my mother was unwilling to vote for Jimmy Carter but was desperately opposed to Ronald Reagan. In 1984, I wore a Jesse Jackson button in the primaries (for which I endured considerable ridicule at my conservative, upper-middle class high school), and was grieved by decent Walter Mondale’s trouncing that November. The secular liberalism of my childhood was rooted in a belief that we, the fortunate, had a moral responsiblity to help those less fortunate than ourselves — and that responsibility could not be carried by individuals alone, but was the appropriate task of the state. To a great extent, I still believe that.
So, I loathed Ronald Reagan’s politics. The tax cuts, the firing of the PATCO workers, the invasion of Grenada, the bombing of Libya, the Iran-Contra scandal; I denounced them all with the fiery certainty of adolescence. But even as I hated his actions, I loved to listen to him speak. I found him impossible to dislike. And unlike many liberals, I never thought he wasn’t bright. The recent publication of many of his handwritten notes and letters make clear that he wasn’t the “amiable dunce” that many of us on the Left insisted that he was. (Jonathan Dresner briefly disagrees here). From what I’ve read, he was a surprisingly subtle thinker with a fine layman’s knowledge of history and superb political instincts. I see no reason why we on the Left cannot simultaneously abhor a man’s politics while declaring him to be a bright, well-intentioned and fundamentally decent person. Reagan always seemed to be gracious to his adversaries; I only wish all of his adversaries had been equally gracious in return.
He often made me cry. That’s not hard, mind you, I’m a very sentimental guy. National Review put up his 1989 farewell address today, and re-reading it, this thorough-going socialist puddled up. In some small way, I loved Reagan because I felt I had a kindred spirit in this sentimental man who preferred moving personal stories to dry and impersonal facts. I too longed for a shining city on a hill, though my current fixation on Anabaptism renders me suspicious of any possibilty of transforming the state into such a place. Anyhow, read the speech — and amidst the half-truths and the folksiness, perhaps you too will see something beautiful and compelling.
UPDATE: Conservative gay Trojan blogger Boi from Troy has a roundup of various bloggings on the passing of the Gipper. Some are touching, some are profane, some are self-righteous, all are genuine. And I really liked the way John Kerry phrased his tribute; read it here. Jonathan Dresner has also expanded on his comments about Reagan’s intelligence, the clarification is here.