Ronnie, We Hardly Knew Ye
"And now he has left us... It's not hard to imagine him now in a place where his powers have been returned to him and he's himself again--sweet-hearted, tough, funny, optimistic and very brave. You imagine him snapping one of those little salutes as he turns to say goodbye..."
So wrote Peggy Noonan in the Opinion Journal
on the passing of the 40th US President, Ronald Wilson Reagan. She was one of many who served under him, and who authored books about him, hers being titled When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan
. You'd think people knew him well enough.
But according to Dinesh D'Souza: "Virtually everyone who knew Reagan well or observed him closely... [is] familiar with the public Reagan, but their efforts to discover the individual behind the mask have proved frustratingly elusive."
Apparently this included his children, and at times his own wife. D'Souza, a domestic policy advisor under Reagan and the author of several books on political and social issues, elaborates on his admiration for his former boss, in his recent book Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary Leader
I came to Washington in December of 1980, at about the same time as did Reagan, to begin my Federal service career. I didn't hesitate to vote for him. No sooner was he in office, though, than I thought I might live to regret it. One of Reagan's first official acts in office, was to impose a hiring freeze of Federal employees. This was expected by everyone. But he went one step further. He back-dated the order to the day in early November when he was elected. I was hired on December 15. It was a clearly partisan move designed to stem the padding of career civil service ranks with former Carter appointees. Why that had to have something to do with me, I'll never know. The order was even upheld by a Federal judge, perhaps one who was caught up in the enthusiasm to rid Washington of all those wasteful parasites in the Federal ranks.
Me? I just wanted to make a positive contribution to public service (the publishing industry being the largest in the Nation's capital) through the use of my professional talents. I remember hearing at the time, of one Reaganite who spoke at a meeting of government writers, taking them to task for such allegedly superfluous publications as a USDA piece on brown-bag lunches. This was met by a response from one writer within that agency, who pointed out to Mister Know-It-All, that they were getting thousands of requests a year for such information, and a ready-made publication on the subject was cheaper than answering each inquiry individually. Duh...
Anyway, in the end, I was able to keep my job, since the paperwork to hire me had already gone through, and the freeze on hiring had no provision for firing. I also survived a reduction-in-force two years later, thanks to the personal intervention of my supervisor at the time.
In the early years, I would wade through the criticism of political hacks, bragging about their "real world" experience before coming to Washington (as if political life could possibly resemble the real world), then leave after one or two years to go work for a think tank or some other "Beltway bandit." Many of the fat-ass white boys who wanted to reduce the size of government went on to feed off the Federal trough in some other fashion.
I wasn't sorry to see them leave. But I was
sorry to see a few people go, from among the political ranks, whose work and personal character I came to admire. I stayed in touch with many of them for years afterward. (One of them will be mentioned in this weblog next week. Stay tuned...)
In the years since, I've seen a change of attitude toward the Federal employee. It seems that some people are now convinced we do a genuine public service, especially after "9/11." Even the quality of employee has improved. The Reagan years may have touched off the end of complacency that settled into the Federal ranks during the 1970s. The agency for which I work had a reputation over the years of being what is called a "turkey farm," a place where you put managers -- be they political or career -- when you have no place else to put them, and you can't get rid of them (on the latter point, don't ask me why). I watched many of my agency's "old boy network" retire in the last ten years, to be replaced by younger, more qualified (or just plain qualified
in a few cases) public servants. Even working alongside contract employees may have helped to raise the bar on performance. We've taken on a new confidence, and so have I. The last five years have seen some of my finest work.
I was never
sorry to be a Federal employee. Nor was I sorry I voted for Reagan twice. It was the character of the man himself, not the unscrupulous attitudes of a few of those who bathed in the glow of his guiding light, that won me over. Starting out life in a small town in the Midwest, coming from a poor family, and son of an alcoholic father, he could have been my father or someone a lot like him.
And so he was a father figure to this Nation, reminding us that, whatever our faults, we were better off loving ourselves and the God under which our republic was founded, than joining our enemies in beating ourselves up. It was that charisma that helped to overthrow communism, and change the shape of the world forever -- to say nothing of how we looked at ourselves.
After he left office, close friends would stop by to see him and Nancy. One commented on how they showed little if any interest in politics. Shouldn't that surprise us about a man who made such an impact on the world? Or shouldn't he be allowed to emulate Cincinnatus, who after saving Rome from her enemies, passed on the emperor's throne to return to his plow?
I do not believe that many who surrounded Reagan, much less those who benefitted from his position, were as altruistic as he was. It seems everyone is lining up to win his favor, even before he is in the grave. Several years ago, back in my hometown of Cincinnati, the interconnector once known as Cross County Highway became known as "Ronald Reagan Highway." Closer to the Beltway, someone wants to introduce a resolution in Congress naming the Pentagon after him. This is ridiculous, when you consider that less than a mile away, is the former National Airport, now called Ronald Reagan Airport, where members of the same Congress can park free of charge and get a ten-minute drive to the office. Meanwhile, in the midst of downtown Washington, is what was considered at the time the biggest cost-overrun boondoggle in the history of Federal buildings -- the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center. (It's a nice building, though.)
As if that weren't enough, there is movement in Congress, in the form of a resolution to put Reagan's face on either the ten- or twenty-dollar bill, as if Alexander Hamilton or Andrew Jackson were suddenly out of favor. There's also talk of putting his likeness on the ten-cent coin. Would the man who first espoused the privatization of Social Security take the place of the man who first conceived of it? Will the ironies never end? There is also the wish to put a Reagan Memorial on the Mall, a plaza that is already overcrowded with memorials, to the point that even the World War II Memorial caused concern.
Are they raising monuments to the man, or to themselves and how they benefitted from him?
However satisfied with themselves would be those who would ingratiate themselves to Ronald Wilson Reagan, I believe those who managed to look beyond personal ambition, enough to really know
the man, would well imagine him rolling his eyes from within his coffin, at all the fuss being made. Those who believe otherwise might take a clue from the humility shown in the letter he wrote to America November 5, 1994, when he found he had Alzheimer's disease. I reproduce it here, in its entirety, as my own tribute to the measure of his character:
My Fellow Americans,
I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.
In the past Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing.
They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.
So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.
At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.
Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.
In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan
Happy trails, Dutch, and may God ride with you... until we meet again.