Ronald Reagan: It Was a Wonderful Life

When President Reagan was a young man, serving his local town as a lifeguard, he saved the lives of 19 swimmers. Supposing he had tried to save the life of a 20th who, struggling wildly, momentarily knocked out the future President so that he too started to drown and, losing consciousness . . .

When Ronnie came to, he found himself in the company of a mild-looking elderly man and a tall lanky youth of his own age. The latter introduced himself:

"Hello, Ronnie, we don’t know each other yet, but we’ll become great friends in later life — that is, if you have one. Talking of which, let me introduce my friend, Clarence, who’s by way of being a guardian angel. But he’ll explain."

At that the young man disappeared and Ronnie found himself alone with Clarence in a large deserted avenue lit only by two or three sputtering lamps. He was about to ask where he was when Clarence said:

"This is Broadway in New York, Ronnie, in 1986 on the anniversary of the American Revolution. They were going to have celebrations, but they had to be canceled owing to the energy shortage."

"What on earth happened to darken Broadway?" asked Ronnie.

"Well, they had an energy crisis beginning in the mid-1970s," explained Clarence again. "The second Carter administration, knowing that oil and energy resources were running out worldwide, imposed strict controls and limits to growth. You weren’t around to persuade the nation that American enterprise and the free market would solve the problem in a few years if we freed them up. So the energy crisis got worse and worse. People adapted. They don’t go out much these days and they travel during the day to avoid the muggers."

Just then the scene changed to an even more depressed landscape in which ill-dressed men and women, with permanently anxious expressions, hurried along fog-bound streets. Around the corner came a striking woman with piercing blue eyes. The others stepped aside respectfully for her, but they also shamefacedly avoided her gaze.

"That’s a woman called Margaret Thatcher," explained Clarence, again before Ronnie could ask. "She’s a retired head-teacher. She was Prime Minister here in England for three short years in the early 1980s. But she fell from power when Britain lost the Falklands War."

"I find it hard to imagine that women losing anything, let alone a war," said Ronnie.

"You’re right to feel that," replied Clarence. "In fact the British almost won even though they were operating eight thousand miles from home against an enemy only two hundred miles from home base. But the second Carter administration couldn’t see much difference between a reactionary conservative like Thatcher and the Argentine junta. They remained neutral and the British never had the modern weapons that would have given them victory — and that you would have given them. So Britain lost, Thatcher fell, and the British never abandoned socialism to become the fourth largest economy in the world."

Ronnie gazed around sadly at the mean streets and impoverished hurrying crowds.
Interpreting his thoughts again, Clarence added: "At least they remained a democracy unlike the rest of Europe. You see, the left-wing peace movement won in Europe and handed victory in the Cold War to Soviets. Thatcher wasn’t there to rally Europeans and save Europe because you weren’t there to save Thatcher. Europe today has been Finlandized into an informal Soviet protectorate."

"Is there no resistance?" asked Ronnie.

The scene changed again. Ronnie found himself in a square looking at a solitary lighted window in a vast basilica.

"That’s Pope John Paul II praying for the salvation of Europe," Clarence said quietly. "He’s been known as the Prisoner of the Vatican ever since Italy went communist in the mid-eighties. But Catholic power had been broken in Europe four years before when the Polish communists crushed Solidarity. You see, Ronnie, you weren’t there to help the Pope keep Solidarity alive after the martial law crackdown."

"Are these things that must be," asked the future President, "or only things that may be."

Clarence replied: "You’re coming up for air for the last time in a few seconds, Ronnie, and if you want to change things . . ."

Ronnie suddenly realized he was spluttering and coughing. He took a deep breath and, seizing his companion in distress, headed for the shore. But as he clambered onto dry land, he felt his dream shattering into fragments that he couldn’t quite catch.

Late in life, Ronald Reagan told his biographer than none of the 19 people he had saved ever came back to thank him. Let’s not make the same mistake.