In the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a playwright named Robert Patrick turned out a work titled Kennedy's Children. It played on a theme that Garry Wills articulated in an Esquire magazine article. Kennedy's soaring rhetoric and his charisma heightened emotions and expectations. And when he was assassinated, those emotions found some pretty weird places to go.
JFK is part of the romance that many middle-aged Americans would like to recapture. But we live in Ronald Reagan's America.
Among our presidents, Reagan is strange company. He was our first actor-president. The eminent biographer Edmund Morris struggled for years to grasp the man and came up empty. Morris' book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan is a lot of speculation. Morris did that because he didn't have solid material for a substantive biography. People who knew Reagan well told Morris that he'd never find the man beneath the veneer.
Reagan fought World War II in Hollywood. My late uncle, a psychiatrist who practiced in Los Angeles said emphatically of Reagan, "He's acting, 100 percent of the time."
Most of the speakers at Reagan's memorial service Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda did not know him. The only members of the Oregon congressional delegation who served during Reagan's years were Sen. Ron Wyden, who was then a congressman, and Rep. Peter DeFazio. Only one member of Washington's congressional delegation, Rep. Norm Dicks, served during Reagan's presidency.
Those who are eulogizing Reagan are spinning a story that leaves out unpleasant aspects of those years. There was the Iran-Contra scandal. Flower petals were strewn on the toilet water.A large number of Reagan's lieutenants were prosecuted. Reagan spent the nation into enormous debt. But, to use a phrase from the theater, Reagan's character played well. Americans bought his sunny disposition.
In Monday's edition of The Wall Street Journal, David Wessel and Gerald Seib captured the essence of Reagan's impact. Concerning the economy, they wrote: "To fans, he broke a decades-long cycle of debilitating tax rates and over-reliance on government oversight of the economy, engineering an economic explosion. To foes, he brought on an era of economic inequality, and made the political world numb to giant budget deficits that have re-emerged today. The stakes were large - easily as large as they were in foreign policy where he, as much as anyone, vanquished Communism and opened the door for a reunited Europe."
My wife and I lived in Washington during most of the Reagan administration. On Election Day 1980 at about 7:30 a.m., there was a single sharp thunderclap. It was highly unusual for a November morning. The abrupt noise seemed to be a celestial signal that this would be no ordinary day. It wasn't. By the day's end, a layer of the Democratically-controlled Congress had been swept away, Jimmy Carter was out and Reagan was in.
My dominant memory of Reagan's inauguration was the enormous wealth that came to town. If Andrew Jackson's inauguration was a people's celebration, this was a gathering of plutocrats. I remember The Washington Post reporting that limousines were double parked on many downtown streets and that there were so many private jets at Washington National Airport that celebrities and moguls who were used to flying on demand had to sit in their, albeit luxurious, waiting room.
At Reagan's swearing-in, my wife and I sat among the donors, at the outer-reaches of the Capitol's west lawn. We observed a woman with a mink cowboy hat. We saw Charley Pride and a deeply tanned Pat Boone.
One defining moment of the excess of the Reagan era was a party at the Kennedy Center. When guests went to the rest rooms, they found flower petals in the toilets. After each flushing, more petals were strewn.
A strong theme of the Reagan presidency that is not mentioned is the devastation of environmental policy. During the early weeks of the Reagan administration, I met Interior Secretary James Watt. A group of Western newspaper correspondents had a breakfast gathering, and Watt agreed to be our guest. Over 90 minutes, Watt laid out the entire philosophy that would unfold.
One of the curious products of Reagan's shooting was a breach between the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association. Reagan's Press Secretary James Brady was badly wounded and would never fully recover. When Reagan asked for a law that would institute background checks on gun buyers, NRA opposition gave way. Similarly, Nancy Reagan's push for a change in stem cell research is at odds with President George W. Bush's position, which is attuned to that of Right-to-Life and the Catholic Church.
The longer I watch politics, the more I believe the genius of our system is that it is not rigid. It has the flexibility to expand and contract, shift and accommodate change over time.
That is what happened in 1980. Our public policy took an abrupt turn. Reagan's policies rewarded the very rich, and his presidency marked the onset of an era in which the divide between rich and poor widened. That is the America we live in.