On June 6, 1984, Ronald Reagan gave one of his most famous speeches at the 40th Anniversary celebration of the D-day invasion of Normandy, France. President Reagan’s passing yesterday, but a day short of the 60th anniversary of that hallowed event, has naturally lead to testimonials that remember that day and his words from almost precisely twenty years previously.
I recall listening to that speech in 1984. I was a much younger man, not yet a curmudgeon, and happily enfranchised-confidently pulling that lever to cast my vote for Reagan. This was before Iran-Contra had clouded the Reagan Presidency, and I was unwavering in my support. While the years have conspired to erode my belief in some of the philosophical positions that Reagan personified, my love of his optimism and unique leadership remains undimmed.
I would suggest that it would take a hard heart, to not be at least somewhat inspired by one of our nation’s most heart-felt optimists. Reagan was often deemed but a “great actor” by those in political opposition, but I have felt all along that those of that opinion had it all wrong: Reagan derived his strength and ability to lead from his sincerity. I have no doubt that who ever wrote these words, they were uttered by Reagan with no hesitancy or disengenuity:
[T]he dead of battle have spoken more eloquently for themselves than any of the living ever could. But we can only honor them by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave a last full measure of devotion….Today we do rededicate ourselves to that cause. And at this place of honor, we’re humbled by the realization of how much so many gave to the cause of freedom and to their fellow man.
Honor. Freedom. Fellow Man. These are Ideas that stir men’s souls.
As I write, I have tears in my eyes as I know many of you do as well. Whatever policy errors and political misdeeds which may have occurred on President Reagan’s watch, he spoke eloquently, sincerely and reverentially about our Ideals and reached my heart strings in a way that will live with me forever.
Tears may seem unusual for someone who dislikes politicians as much as I. But, for any of you perhaps too young to remember, the year 1984 was a much different time than 2004. The malaise of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Carter administration were still fresh in mind. Reagan changed all of that.
It seemed then, as it does in retrospect, that this was the man who had single-mindedly willed America to a rebirth of spirit. As I have heard in the voluminous testimonials in the last 24 hours, even Reagan’s most ardent political opponents understand the unique service that the Gipper provided in helping rekindle the embers of our dying Republic.
What a pity that President Reagan’s political heirs have forgotten the substance of his words uttered merely two decades ago at Pointe du Hoc Memorial:
From a terrible war we learned that unity made us invincible; now, in peace, that same unity makes us secure. We sought to bring all freedom-loving nations together in a community dedicated to the defense and preservation of our sacred values. Our alliance, forged in the crucible of war, tempered and shaped by the realities of the postwar world, has succeeded. In Europe, the threat has been contained, the peace has been kept.
You see, my tears are not for a lost man, but for a lost America. In the last twenty years we have traveled the road from Unity to Unilateralism; from Leadership to Domination; from Ideals to Ideology. The lost ground in that time is not to be underestimated. It is as if the positive energy generated by Reagan’s idealism has wasted into the ether and we are left with the crumbs of a incomplete ideology, hollowed out by the rasp of factionalism.
Reagan of course does not deserve sole credit for the reinvigoration of America any more than our current President deserves sole responsibility for leading us into the abyss of political triumphialism. Both men stand as symbols of the larger trends of which they were a part.
Forgive my tainting of an epitaph with political observation. It is just very hard to avoid today because as I drove my car, I was treated to right-wing talk shows that could seemingly not resist doing the same. In their view, it was impossible during this election year to miss the profundity of Reagan’s death at this time; of the similarity of choice during the 1980 presidential campaign with that of 2004: the Reagan optimism contrasted with the Carter morosity; Bush contrasted with Kerry.
While the current President occupies the same political space as did Reagan, he lacks several essential ingredients to fill those shoes, not the least of which is sincerity of heart. Several of the remembrances of Reagan which I have heard echoed the sentiment that one of the most striking things about him was that he was so comfortable being himself.
That comfort was never so evident as it was at times of national grief. While every President since Mr. Reagan has uttered beautiful words and rhetorically appealed to our Higher Ideals, none could have moved us in the way that Reagan did. None could have closed a speech as did Reagan after the Challenger Disaster without an intellectual flinch from the listener:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Whether you agreed with Mr. Reagan, or disagreed, there is little doubt that he was a genuine article.
I miss that.