The pageantry of the moment was awe inspiring. The response of the American people was unforgettable. On Constitution Avenue, just south of the home he occupied for eight years, tens of thousands of Americans watched in reverent silence as the flag-draped casket bearing the former president was placed on the horse-drawn caisson. Hundreds of thousands more waited patiently, first in California, then in Washington and again at the Reagan Presidential Library, just for a chance to spend a moment near him. It was a farewell tribute worthy of a great leader. And it stunned most of the media.
As I watched the long procession up to the Capitol and the ceremonies thereafter, I was struck by the overwhelming outpouring of genuine respect that the citizens of this country demonstrated toward a man who left office more than 15 years ago. And I was dismayed that many of those in the media who sought to explain this admiration still don’t get it. But then, they never really understood Ronald Reagan while he was alive.
Some have said and written that it was his “infectious, incurable optimism,” his “amiable personality” and his “self-confidence” that brought him success. But that ignores Ronald Reagan’s humility and faith as the foundations of his assurance. It also discounts his resolve and steadfastness in the face of adversity and disappointment.
Others tell us that he owes his acclaim to “winning the Cold War without firing a shot.” But Ronald Reagan knew that the long struggle against communism was anything but “cold” to those who fought and died in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and dozens of other bloody battlefields.
Several have attempted to attribute his triumphs to rhetorical skills perfected as an actor while simultaneously “informing” us that he wasn’t a very good actor.
All their explanations fall short because they don’t want to — or can’t — acknowledge the full measure of the giant who now has passed from our midst. The Ronald Reagan I knew was much more than just a “Great Communicator.”
He was a man who knew himself — his own gifts and liabilities — and who we are as a people. He believed that Americans are innately decent — not perfect — but good, and that we could be inspired to do better. While he delivered memorable, passionate speeches, some of his most magnificent moments weren’t “performances” delivered before crowds or cameras, but in the hushed confines of the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, in private dialogue and in heartwarming letters he drafted himself.
Though few in the media ever acknowledged it while he was in office, Ronald Reagan was a remarkably compassionate man. In the aftermath of the October 23, 1983, terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers, the president attended the memorial service at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Following the ceremony, after the cameras had been turned off, and while the president and Mrs. Reagan were greeting the families of those who had been killed or wounded, a little boy, about 4 or 5 years old, looked up and said, “Mr. President, can you bring my daddy home?”
Lesser men might have continued walking and ignored the youngster — but not Ronald Reagan. He reached down, picked up and hugged the child whose father would never come home. With tears flowing down his cheeks, the president said, “I wish I could.” That was no act — it was the raw emotion of a president who felt great compassion for that little boy and the sacrifice his father made on behalf of this nation.
One of my most cherished possessions is a letter Ronald Reagan wrote that explains Harry Truman’s adage which sat behind his desk: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” He quoted Thomas Merton, “We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, work without expecting immediate reward, love without instantaneous satisfaction, exist without special recognition.”
The president then wrote, “In today’s modern world many would challenge Merton’s statement and ask why we must be content to live this way.” He answered that question with some of the best advice I’ve ever received: “because our nation was built by men who dedicated their lives to building our country for the sake of their children and countrymen, without taking the time to worry about receiving recognition for their efforts.”
He could also rise in righteous anger — and show it. On Oct. 7, 1985, when terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew, he convened his National Security Planning Group to recommend some courses of action. After listening to more than an hour of wrangling among his closest advisors, he stopped the debate and said: “Just go get them.” A few hours later, when I carried the necessary documents into him for his signature authorizing the use of U.S. military force, he read through the paperwork, signed the appropriate space and said, “It doesn’t say, ‘Get them!'”
Several days later, we did “get them.” Daring Navy pilots forced an Egyptian aircraft transporting the terrorists down in Sicily, and Gen. Carl Steiner, then the commander of our Special Operations Forces, took them into custody. Pat Buchanan and I were tasked to prepare a statement for President Reagan to deliver on television. By then, the commander in chief’s anger had cooled, but he still wanted to deliver a message to other would-be terrorists, and he did — by concluding his remarks with a deadly serious line: “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Afterward, without fanfare or publicity, he personally called and thanked everyone involved in the capture.
When my children’s children ask me about Ronald Reagan, I will tell them that I was blessed to serve — as they are to live — in a country that can produce such a great leader at precisely the time when he is most needed. And then I will tell them of a conversation I had with one of his closest friends and one of mine, Judge William P. Clark. After reminiscing for a while in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance of our president’s final visit to Washington, we concluded that for those of us who know where we are going and why we are going there, no doubt, Ronald Reagan is now in that “shining city on a hill.” I’m looking forward to seeing him there.