By Mark Joseph
Dear Mr. President . . .
February 05, 2001
A Letter to former President Ronald Reagan on his 90th Birthday
Dear Mr. President,
Happy 90th Birthday.
What is it like to be you these days? What do you dream about at night? As you recuperate from what is no doubt a confusing injury, what thoughts go through your mind? Are you thinking of the lives you saved in the Rock River? Acting in Kings Row or Knute Rockne, All American? Do you wonder who are the tall men in dark suits who constantly surround you? Are there moments over breakfast when you wonder who the slender lady with the sweet gaze is?
Do you have any idea what happened to the small man who sat in your old office? Perhaps it is good that he wasn't removed but allowed to finish two terms as you did. It's important to keep small men around to remind us on a daily basis how large you were.
We can't imagine you ushering an intern into the back room.
How your enemies hated you. How often they lied about you. There were my friends in junior high who said you would blow up the world, teachers in high school who said you were just an actor, professors in college who said your faith was phony, fabricated to win the votes of the moralists.
Almost every day the other small men are forced by the currents of history to adopt your view of the world. A small man of the Senate from Massachusetts recently voted to fund Star Wars, the very term he coined to mock your foresight.
How difficult it must be to be the son of a big man — especially one who shares the same name. It must be as difficult as it would be easy to be the namesake of small men. It's easy enough to be Jesse Jackson, Jr. — just have personal integrity and hold to your convictions. If your last name is Bush and your first name George, it's as easy as talking in complete sentences, knowing and being able to articulate why you believe what you believe, and remembering that campaign pledges are sacred promises to the people. But how does one go about being Ronald Reagan, Jr.?
My journey with you began in 1976. I was eight years old with a transistor radio at my ear, hearing the news of your defeat at the hands of a small man from Michigan. I was only eight years old but I sensed there was something different about you. I didn't know much about politics, just that you were somebody I could trust. I didn't know what tax cuts were, just that they were good. I certainly didn't know what an abortion was, but you said it was bad and I believed you.
I was sure that I'd never get to see more of you than those autographs that came with those letters you sent to me, but I did. Maybe it was a slow news day or maybe my story — about breaking federal election law to vote for you with my Dad's absentee ballot when I was twelve — impressed your staff enough to let me in.
As I walked into your office I noticed that your assistant was speaking to you in an odd tone, the way a mother speaks to a child, gently reassuring. You were shorter than I expected. The earth is slowly but surely pulling you closer to it, and one day very soon it will fold you into its bosom and we will grieve.
We talked, but you seemed vacant. I slipped an arm around you as we took pictures and I felt extra padding around your waist, the kind that slowly accumulates when a person is denied his favorite activities — like riding horses and chopping wood — for more Republican ones like playing golf and walking in the park.
As I was ushered to the door, I already felt a twinge of regret — my time with you was already over and we hadn't really connected. You were polite but in a fog. I tried one more time — with the only thing I knew to do: say the words that I heard a million times from my mother as you did from Nelle.
"We all love you very much, Mr. President," I ventured, as I shook your hand for the last time. Immediately and to my surprise you came to life! Your eyes danced and sparkled, your face broke into a wide grin, and you winked at me. I had seen that grin before, those eyes dance before. Maybe it was in the debate with the small man from Plains when you said "there you go again," or the debate with the small man from Minnesota when you promised not to take advantage of his youth and inexperience, or the many times you told the small man from Moscow to trust but verify.
As the awful disease slowly pulls you from us, do you have moments when you hear the voice of God? What do you hear him say? Do you remember the letter you wrote to the old Methodist minister who had come to doubt his own faith and for some reason thought the Governor of California could set him straight? He was right, of course, for you did, reminding him that Christ was either who he said he was, the Savior of the world, or the greatest liar that ever lived, and that you had chosen the former. Imagine — the Governor of California teaching a Methodist minister about theology.
Of course all great men have their faults, and you are no exception, for a man is not measured by his failures but by his response to them. There was the divorce that you didn't want and there was your second daughter born right on time — seven months after your wedding.
Two thoughts come to mind: First, what would the dress-stainer-in-chief have done in that situation? Would he have simply abandoned her or paid to have her womb emptied? Second, what an enormous amount of moral courage and conviction (that small men would call hypocrisy) it must have taken to later look the daughter you conceived out of wedlock in the eyes and tell her that living with her boyfriend the rock star was a moral sin that broke God's law.
Scharansky of Israel tells the story of how your Evil Empire speech gave courage to the dissidents rotting in Soviet jails — that they tapped out messages to one another and spread the word among the disheartened that one big man believed in them and refused to accept the world as it was.
And now it is you locked up in the prison of your own mind. But it will soon be over, Mr. President, for you will soon, to borrow yours and the poet's words, slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God. We will grieve. But you will be welcomed.
At your farewell service in the Rotunda dozens of small men and women will put on their game faces and do their best to pretend that they had anything but contempt for you while you were alive and active.
The small man from Hope will bite his bottom lip and fight back a crocodile tear. The small man from Kennebunkport — who thought you weren't kind and gentle enough and didn't study you well enough to know that a promise couldn't be dismissed with "read my lips" — will be there. The small duke from Massachusetts who compared you to the rotting head of a dead fish will be there. The small man from Texas with the name like that televangelist will be there too, and if the camera turns to him your real friends will break out in laughter, remembering the time when he was trying to convince you to break one of your election promises. You took off your glasses, glared at him across the table, and said if that's what you believe, than what are you doing in my administration?
There will be a few friends there, but mostly it will be honored members of an establishment that barely concealed its contempt for you. Most of your true friends will find themselves without the proper credentials to get in. They will be in the heartland that gave you to the world. In Dixon, Tampico, Des Moines, St. Paul, Tuscaloosa, and La Mirada.
As another small man observed on the day he left your office in disgrace, the French have a better word for such partings — au revoir, we'll see you again . . . on the other side.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President.