Jewish World Review June 14, 2004/ 25 Sivan, 5764
Like Thatcher, Americans grasped Reagan's worth
'It's so American,'' Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked, watching from Bill Frist's Senate office as Ronald Reagan's casket was brought to the Capitol and 21 jets flew overhead in missing-man formation.
She's right. Serious nations have serious ritual, but each in its own way. From this last extraordinary week, the memorable images have been spare and simple the overhead shot of the caisson in the Rotunda or small and human: Nancy Reagan running her finger along the broad stripes of the flag-draped coffin. Two years ago in London, when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died, the memorable images were more elaborate and regal: the Prince of Wales and Her Majesty's three other grandsons standing vigil at the four corners of the catafalque as thousands of her former subjects silently trooped past to pay their last respects.
When Thatcher stood before President Reagan's coffin, by the way, she curtsied which you're supposed to do only for kings and queens. In America, the king and prime minister are combined in one person, and the politer school of Reagan detractors these past two decades is happy to concede that, putting aside the ghastly policies of his administration, he did a swell job as King Ronnie the nation's affable figurehead, the ''amiable dunce'' (in Clark Clifford's phrase) who woke up one day to find he'd inherited the throne.
If anything is laid to rest with him at the end of this remarkable week, it ought to be the lazy condescension of the elites. That's all but indestructible, alas. Last Monday, the Washington Post and many other papers carried an Associated Press story by Adam Geller on Reagan's economic legacy which began, ''He had almost no schooling in economics...'' Actually, that's one of the few things he did have schooling in: In 1932, he earned a bachelor's degree in social science and economics from Eureka College. I guess a certificate from Eureka just doesn't impress these reporters the way Bush's Yale Business School diploma impresses them.
What is an ''intelligent'' person? As defined by the media, it seems to mean someone who takes the media seriously. Someone wonkish on the nuts and bolts of particular topics of interest to media types, and able to sit around yakking about them till 3 in the morning. Ronald Reagan had a much rarer intelligence a strategic intelligence. In 1977, he told Richard Allen, ''My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.''
Cute. So few politicians talked like that a quarter-century ago that I'd have been content if it was just a neat line. But Reagan figured out a way to make it come true. Within 10 years. That's strategic thinking.
Those who disparage him say it would have happened anyway. It was obvious to all that the Soviet Union was on the verge of total collapse. After all, as big-time Ivy League history prof Arthur Schlesinger wrote in 1982, ''Those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse'' are ''wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves.''
No, hang on, I must be thinking of Professor J.K. Galbraith, who in 1984 was marveling at ''the great material progress'' of the USSR. In fairness to Galbraith, as the Associated Press would say, he has almost no schooling in economics, aside from being a Harvard economics professor for several decades.
On CNN the other night, there was a featurette on all the changes in Ronald Reagan's long life: He was born in 1911, when Buffalo Bill was still alive, etc., etc.. Big deal. If you were born in 1980, that world has vanished, too. The arrogance of every age is the assumption of permanence. It's unusual to find a leader who thinks beyond that: ''smart'' in media politics means someone who can recite by heart every sub-clause of his plan on prescription-drug re-importation from Canada, not someone who looks a decade or two down the road and figures out the lie of the land. I want a leader who's giving some thought to big questions like, say, the increasing Islamification of Europe, and I don't care if he's from Eureka College or dropped out of Dixon High.
Ronald Reagan is beyond the Clark Cliffords and Arthur Schlesingers now. When it comes to his reputation as a great president, the people are way ahead. In that respect, if the citizens of this great republic will forgive a monarchical comparison, let me return to the passing of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
She was 102, so it wasn't exactly unexpected. The BBC and other broadcasters had long ago decided that most of the people who cared about the old girl were themselves long dead. So, come the day, they sloughed it off. Old woman, no big deal, all in the past. And then they spent the rest of the week trying to explain why they'd got it so wrong.
Outside the studios, over half a million people solemnly filed past her coffin as she lay in state at Westminster Hall, and a million lined the streets for her funeral, including some who'd flown in from Canada and other far-flung realms.
Something similar happened last week. Hundreds of thousands of Americans waited quietly in line in California and then in Washington to say goodbye to their president. Meanwhile, back on the air, the big networks struggled to find the tone. On the day itself, the assembled media grandees agreed that he was an amiable fellow with a big smile who told a good joke. If you'd tuned in 10 minutes late to ''Larry King Live,'' you'd have assumed he was doing one of his special tributes to some half-forgotten comic or TV host from the '50s that no one had very much to say about.
Back in the real world, the people waiting hours to get in to the Rotunda were there not just because Ronald Reagan was amiable but because they grasped that he was a significant figure in the life of this country and the world. Here too the events of two years ago are instructive: The Queen Mother was the last living representative of Britain's wartime leadership. She didn't win any battles, of course, but, advised to go to Canada, she instead stayed on in London, toured bombed-out streets in the East End, and took a direct hit at Buckingham Palace. To those on the streets of Westminster in 2002, she symbolized resolve and then victory in a great cause.
That's what this week's mourners understand about Reagan, too. He also symbolizes resolve and victory in a slyer, slipperier war, but one which he won just as decisively. Some saw it then. More see it now. One day even the network anchors and Ivy League professors will get it.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Mark Steyn