My memories of Ronald Reagan are hazy at best. While I came of age in the Reagan era and could credit much of my present political conservatism to his influence, I didn’t really know the man beyond the headlines and the broad sweep of historical reflection.
That’s why Peggy Noonan’s book, [I]When Character Was King was so very welcome. It’s not so much a biography or political study as it is a fond recollection of a great man’s character, hence the name. After reading the book, Reagan is no longer just a great president who accomplished a lot, but he has become a real man of integrity and vision who earnestly sought to do the right thing in most situations. Was he perfect? By no means. He had a bad first marriage, he had a poor relationship with his children, he made bad decisions regarding the Iran-Contra scandal.
But there was so much more to admire about the man. He was deeply faith filled. He knew what he believed and why, but was willing to admit when he was wrong. He was concerned with people, great and small, according respect to everyone equally, regardless of wealth, station, or power. And he did things because he genuinely wanted to improve the world around him, not so that he could be popular or remain in power. The obvious contrast with the last eight years of the century are so apparent as to not deserve mention.
A few stories from the book stand out. When he was newly elected as governor of California, Reagan developed an ulcer. One day he stopped taking his medicine on an impulse. Something inside him told him he didn’t need it anymore. That day he had a meeting with a constituent. At the end of the meeting, the man turned to Reagan and told him that he was part of a group of people who prayed for him every day. Later that same day, another man from out of state had a meeting with the governor and he also told him that he met with a group of people who prayed for him every day. Soon after, Reagan went to the doctor for a checkup and the ulcer was gone and there was no sign it had ever been there.
Nancy Reagan told Noonan that the president was a deeply spiritual man who was always praying in free moments—in cars, sitting in an airplane seat, and so on. She said his philsophy was, “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if you want to pray you pray.” His daughter Patti Davis remembered that her dad has special relationship with God; that he talked to God all the time.
- It didn’t mean that he was any more special in God’s eyes or that he believed that. We are all special with God. It’s not that God’s speaking to anybody more than anyone else, it’s that some people choose to listen. And talk back. And my father talked to God. That’s what I got as a child, I got that he just talked to God all the time. He just had conversations with God.
Dutch Reagan was also ardently pro-life, not just in a half-hearted political way, but as a deeply held belief. In a speech after he was elected president, he said:
- Human life legislation ending this tragedy will someday pass the Congress, and you and I must never rest until it does. Unless and until it can be proven the unborn child is not a living person, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected.
Would that we had such leaders willing to speak so plainly today.
On the day Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Reagan famously kept up his sense of humor as well as his dignity, refusing to be wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher, instead buttoning his suit jacket and walking in the door on his own. When he was in the ER, Reagan saw his press secretary Jim Brady wheeled past and said a prayer for the lives and safety of everyone who had been shot. Then he thought: “I can’t ask God to heal Jim and the others and at the same time feel hatred for the man who shot us,” so as Noonan says, “he asked God to help the man deal with whatever demons had made him shoot them.”
There is a very interesting chapter in which Noonan talks to President George W. Bush about Reagan. While this interview took place prior to 9/11, Noonan incorporates her observations on Bush’s elevated stature after those events and how much alike the characters of those two men were. Bush “43” and Reagan have many differences in their personalities, but their integrity and principles were much the same.
The saddest part of the book for me was the revelation of the physical and mental decline of this great man. Because of the effects of Alzheimer’s, Reagan today doesn’t even remember his own great feats and accomplishments, never mind the people who have loved him and stood by him all these years. I grieve for the man and, in a way, for myself because I wish I had understood more the kind of president I was privileged to have in those days. I was too young when he was elected to understand the difference he made in the American political system and in American life. He made it okay to be proud to be American again after the malaise and self-doubt of the 60s and 70s. But most of all, I feel sorry for those who are too young to remember Reagan at all. I pray that someday, they too will know another great president in the same mold as Reagan. Perhaps GW Bush will be a man like that; it’s too early to tell for sure, but it’s possible.
America, and the world, need more men like Reagan. Not just presidents and politicians, but men of ethics and integrity in the workplace and home and our society. Reagan truly was a man of his generation, the greatest generation, as Tom Brokaw coined the phrase.