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A Standing Ovation for a Last Act

By: Lee Edwards
February 29, 2016

s a rule, politicians die unloved and unnoticed. Ronald Reagan, whose death in June 2004 elicited a transcontinental outpouring of affection and sorrow, is an exception. For one week, flags flew at half-mast as Americans paid respect to the man who led the country into a period of unprecedented national prosperity and out of the Cold War—the 20th century’s longest—without firing a shot.

In Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan, historian Craig Shirley deftly recounts Reagan’s post-presidential years, providing intimate details of the former president and a moving portrait of Nancy Reagan’s unflagging devotion to her husband— gently guiding him at his final public appearances, never leaving “Ronnie’s” side even when he no longer recognized her.

It is Nancy who, despite her deep grief, managed every detail of her husband’s last journey, from their Bel Air home where Reagan died in his bed, to the U.S. Capitol where he lay in state, to the memorial service in the National Cathedral, to the final services at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where the president was laid to rest in a solid mahogany casket inside a bronze-lined vault seven feet underground.

It was a good post-presidential life. Reagan spent as much time as possible at his “ranch in the sky” near Santa Barbara, with its magnificent view of the blue Pacific, happy to be free of the “turmoils” in Washington. He had no serious health problems before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994 (although he was thrown by a horse in July 1989, requiring an operation to relieve pressure on his brain. Nancy thought there was a correlation between the fall and his Alzheimer’s). Reagan did not despair over his disease, believing that even something that robbed him of everything was part of God’s plan. Sitting at his desk at home, he wrote to the world of his affliction, expressing the hope that a public letter would encourage “a clearer understanding” of Alzheimer’s, while lamenting the “heavy burden” it would impose on Nancy. He ended as he had always ended his public addresses, thanking his fellow Americans and asking God to “always bless you.”

Shirley guides us through the emotional week-long tribute to the former president that began at the Reagan Library. Two thousand mourners filed by his casket every hour: old war veterans and college students; suburban moms and ordained ministers; Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and political parties. “Reagan had touched them all,” said one TV commentator. The library was obliged to call a halt after 36 hours; 118,000 people had passed by the bier.

Thousands of cars and tens of thousands of people lined the Ronald Reagan Freeway to catch a glimpse of the limousine carrying Nancy Reagan and the body of the late president to Los Angeles Airport. The Reagans were flown to Washington, where Ronald would lie in state in the Rotunda. (Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be so honored; others included James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.) As at the Reagan Library, tens of thousands of Americans stood patiently in line for hours to pay their respects.

At the same time as he was lying in state, Shirley tells us, the New York Times published a dismissive editorial of Reagan, accusing him of thinking in anecdotes and possessing only a “thin” understanding of international affairs. His participation in discussions was limited, according to the Times, “to what his staff had provided him on the 3-by-5 cards.” Shirley rebuts this canard, presenting evidence of Reagan’s astute leadership and extensive reading. In the words of  veteran syndicated columnist Robert Novak, “Reagan was an intellectual [who] read the economic texts of Bastiat, Steel and Compton.” I can attest to Reagan’s reading habits, having visited his wide-ranging personal library in 1965 before he first ran for public office.

Not all liberals were as critical as the Times. Senator Edward Kennedy, in his memorial tribute in the Senate, said that Reagan “brought a special grace to the White House and the country in everything he did…. [H]e had an undeniably unique capacity to inspire and move the Nation.” John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of Cold War historians, wrote that Reagan “was as skillful a politician as [America] had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever.” Economist Robert Samuelson noted that nearly all the obituaries overlooked one of Reagan’s greatest achievements—the eradication of the 1970s inflation that “had been eating away at income, savings, investment, and equity—America’s future.”

But the greatest praise came from his old friend and colleague, Lady Margaret Thatcher, who mesmerized the assembly at the National Cathedral services with an eloquent salute evocative of Churchill:

With the lever of American patriotism, he lifted up the world. And so today, the world—in Prague, in Budapest, in Warsaw, and Sofia, in Bucharest, in Kiev, and in Moscow itself, the world mourns the passing of the great liberator and echoes his prayer: God Bless America…. We here still move in twilight, but we have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example.

Shirley movingly describes Reagan’s burial at sunset, as the shadows lengthened across the red tile roof and spackled white walls of the Reagan Library. With dozens of magnolias encircling the gravesite, the marine band played “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief” before a sole bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as the casket was brought to the dais. Reagan’s three surviving children spoke briefly, Patti saying, “My father never feared death. He never saw it as an ending.” Nancy Reagan, a model of dignity and stoicism all week long, finally broke down and sobbed after receiving the folded American flag that had covered her husband’s coffin. She had the last word, whispering, “I love you” as she lightly touched his coffin.

A writer who tells the story of his hero’s death could easily descend to bathos. But in Last Act, Craig Shirley sensitively portrays Reagan’s post-presidential years and the week of national mourning over his death. He captures the bittersweet mood of the American people, the tears of loss and smiles of remembrance for a president who restored their confidence by leading the nation to prosperity and the world to peace. Last Act is equally effective in skewering liberal journalists, who never could bring themselves to concede the historic leadership of the man they dismissed as a B-movie actor. We are indebted to Shirley for this exemplary book.