Ronald Reagan turns 89 on Sunday, February 6. We hear from his family that the President's health is failing. Although we knew this was coming, still it is sad.
Reagan was an effective president, and like the best ones, he was controversial. He has been out of the public eye for some time now, so it is easy to forget how impressive he was. We should remind ourselves.
Conviction and sincerity being more useful to presidents than ability to pretend, it probably helped Reagan that he was a mediocre actor. Even before he stopped acting, he gravitated to politics through the Screen Actors Guild. When he was president of the union he fought the communists, who invited him to join them, and he invited them to go to That Hot Place.
In 1966, he beat a popular incumbent to become governor of the largest state. The nation was in the throes of civil unrest. He kept the peace.
He ran for president three times. The first time he lost, and the day after he said: "We lost, but the cause — the cause goes on." Thus amidst defeat began the victorious 1980 campaign.
As president he kept his perspective. His perspective reached upwards to the great events by which the office of the presidency was built.
His first words as president were these:
To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion. Yet, in the history of the nation, it is a commonplace. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think about how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal, is nothing less than a miracle.
And so at the supreme moment of his life, he demotes himself beneath the Constitution and places himself in the long tradition of George Washington.
In this First Inaugural address, Reagan broke precedent and moved the ceremony around to the side of the Capitol that faces the National Mall. His purpose was to take us on a tour of the peaks of American history. First he directed our attention to the monument to George Washington, then to Lincoln, and then to Jefferson. Of Lincoln: "Whoever in his heart would understand the meaning of America, will find it in the life of that man." Of all of them: "These are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand."
This is not only a speech about heroes, but also about self-government, which requires that we all be in some sense heroes. And so Reagan concludes this speech with the story of an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. His last visit on the national Mall is the Arlington Cemetery, where is buried one Martin Treptow, killed in the opening battles for Americans in the First World War.
Reagan quotes young Treptow: "America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."
The genius of Ronald Reagan was not to promise to make everything right through wizardry in Washington. It was rather to call upon us to be worthy of the liberty we enjoy. He was "an ambassador of Providence, sent to reveal to us our unknown selves."
Happy birthday, Mr. President.