Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable. Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death; five Presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then and his thousand days in the White House.
And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on.
I’ve even been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, ‘And another thing, Eleanor!’ Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, ‘Bully! Absolutely ripping!’ Walk softly, now, and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room where a crowd surrounds a bright young President who is full of hope and laughter.
I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one’s country is a living thing that never dies — a life given in service, yes.
History is not only made by people; it is people. And so, history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are.
Ronald Reagan, speech given at a fundraiser for the JFK Library at the home of Senator Ted Kennedy, McLean, Virginia, June 24, 1985
No, not necessarily. If anything, Jimmy Carter should have been way better off during his term (1977-1981) and been in a position of strength going into his 1980 reelection campaign. But Carter rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, didn’t know how to play the game in Washington, couldn’t work with Congress, and was frequently described as “supremely self-confident” — which is code for “arrogant asshole” in the political dictionary. Carter was also probably one of the most inexperienced Presidents of the 20th Century. Prior to his 1976 bid for the Presidency, Carter had served just four years as a Georgia State Senator and four years as Governor of Georgia. His political career had also seen a pretty bad loss in Georgia’s 1966 Democratic Gubernatorial primary to the virulent, unabashedly racist Lester Maddox. What really made Carter’s Presidential election in 1976 especially impressive was the fact that, quite frankly, Jimmy Carter has never been a very good politician.
As I mentioned, Carter had a contentious relationship with Congress throughout his term. Now, many Presidents have difficult relationships with Congress and it can tend to handcuff, if not cripple, their Administrations at times. What’s really unique about Carter’s problems with Congress is that, throughout his four years in office, the Democrat Carter had significant Democratic majorities in Congress. During the first two years of Carter’s Presidency (1977-1979), the 95th Congress had 61 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and 1 Independent in the Senate and the House had 290 Democrats and 145 Republicans. In Carter’s last two years in the White House (1979-1981), the 96th Congress had 58 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and 1 Independent in the Senate, and 276 Democrats-159 Republicans in the House. But because of Carter’s imperious and micromanaging style and the way he treated the Congressional leadership (of his own party!), President Carter basically sabotaged the significant political advantages that he should have had while working hand-in-hand with his fellow Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress. Carter should have been able to have his legislative agenda rubber-stamped through Congress for four years. Instead, Congress cut him off at the knees and never forgave him. Any candidate who could come out of nowhere as a dark horse and win election as President of the United States, as Carter did in 1976, seems like they must have remarkable political skills. But Carter didn’t. It’s almost as if he simply got lucky in 1976 and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Carter was and is a wonderful humanitarian, but he also was and is a crappy politician, and it showed from 1977-1981, particularly when it came to alienating a Congress that was on his side and making his own job exponentially more difficult than it should have been.
Carter may have failed from 1977-1981, but if Ford had been reelected in 1976, I think he would have continued to grow into the Presidency (he was only in office for 2 years, 164 days at the time he left the White House) and been a solid leader during that time period. If Reagan had been elected in 1976 and started the Reagan Revolution four years earlier, I think he would have done just fine from 1977-1981, too.
So, no, I think if you plugged a capable leader into that time frame, they would have done just fine. Carter’s failure during those four years can be chalked up to one simple problem: he’s just never been a very good politician.
Before I post my LONG-AWAITED answers to the Proust Questionnaire, I just want to remind everyone that I actually wrote posted a new essay today: Ronald Reagan’s Private Correspondence With America. It’s not even that long despite my well-deserved reputation as an overly wordy horse’s ass! I hope you’ll check it out and share it and not be annoyed in a couple of days when it runs in AND Magazine and I shamelessly plug it again.
Next up is the Proust Questionnaire! Who’s excited besides the one reader who sent it to me and requested that I complete it? Don’t all raise your hands at the same time now.
(By the way, a fitting alternative title to my Proust Questionnaire post might be “Anti-Climactic”.)
Like many modern Presidents, Ronald Reagan received thousands of letters each day from supporters, opponents, lobbyists, fans, nutjobs, regular Americans, and people around the world. Like many modern Presidents, most of those letters almost never reached Ronald Reagan — but some did. To take the pulse of the American people and try to escape the White House bubble that can isolate even the most down-to-earth of Presidents, Reagan requested that his correspondence secretaries give him a sampling of about 30 letters per month. The letters were carefully screened, but not so one-sided that Reagan didn’t hear from people who weren’t happy with him or what he was doing as President.
Sometimes, Reagan simply read the letters. Most of the time, he picked up his pen and responded in his instantly recognizable handwriting and simple, smooth prose. Longtime Washington fixture Clark Clifford, a former Secretary of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson, once memorably called Ronald Reagan an “amiable dunce”. Reagan may have been amiable — although he had no close friends and even his children said that the only person who truly knew him was his wife, Nancy — but he was no dunce. Exploring the private papers of the 40th President — personal diaries, notes, correspondence, and love letters to his beloved wife — one quickly realizes that Ronald Reagan was one of the best pure writers of all American Presidents. The clarity of his writing, his common touch, and, of course, his sense of humor is readily apparent in his private responses to letters from the American people.
In 1984, 13-year-old Andy Smith of South Carolina wrote the President, “Today, my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area. I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room.” President Reagan’s response was not just funny — it also contained a subtle sermon on Reagan’s small government philosophy:
Your application for disaster relief had been duly noted but I must point out one technical problem; the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.
However, setting that aside I’ll have to point out the larger problem of available funds. This has been a year of disasters, 539 hurricanes as of May 4th and several more since, numerous floods, forest fires, drought in Texas and a number of earthquakes. What I’m getting at is that funds are dangerously low.
May I make a suggestion? This administration, believing that government has done many things that could be done by volunteers at the local level, has sponsored a Private Sector Initiative program calling upon people to practice voluntarism in the solving of a number of local problems.
Your situation appears to be a natural. I’m sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster. Therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program to go along with the more than 3,000 already underway in our nation — congratulations.
Give my best regards to your mother,
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan
A year earlier, another child, Rachel Virden of Texas, wrote to the President and mentioned that she was nervous because she was going to have to start wearing eyeglasses. Reagan sympathized and connected with the young girl:
Rachel I know how you feel about glasses. I have been nearsighted all my life and when I was young I felt as you do about wearing glasses but I wore them. Being able to see clearly was more important. Now maybe seeing me on TV or my picture in the paper you wonder where my glasses are. I’m wearing them — contact lenses. Wear your glasses now and in a few years when your eyes have reached their full size you might look into the idea of contacts. It’s very simple and easy to wear them. I’ve been wearing them all my adult life. But in the meantime don’t deny yourself the joy of being able to see things clearly.
Not all of the letters that reached Reagan’s desk were from children or easy for the President to digest. In 1982, Gail Foyt of Ohio wrote to Reagan and noted that she had voted for him in 1980 but was regretting her decision because of economic problems that deeply affected her and her family since her husband was forced to find work in another state and leave for months at a time. In her letter, Foyt suggested that the “very wealthy” President didn’t care about “people like me — not rich, nor poor — worth nothing except to each other”. Reagan, who grew up in rural Illinois during the Great Depression as the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman who was once fired on Christmas Eve, took it personally:
I wish I could tell you there is some instant answer to the economic problems besetting us but I can’t. However it is my strong belief that we are on the right track and the economy is turning up.
I hope and pray by the time you receive this your own situation is improved and that you are or soon will be united with your husband.
Mrs. Foyt your sentence with regard to my not being able to understand the real world touched a tender nerve. I grew up in poverty, although in a small midwestern town you didn’t think of yourself as poor. Maybe because the government didn’t come around and tell you, you were poor. But I do understand very well what you were saying. I’ve been making speeches for about 30 years on the fact that the forgotten men and women in America were those people who went to work, paid their bills, sent their kids to school and made this country run.
You said you’d pray for me and I’m grateful. I have a great faith in prayer and I intend to pray for you.
President Reagan continued responding to selected letters screened by his correspondence secretaries for the remainder of his Presidency — something that other Presidents have also done, including President Obama. But Ronald Reagan’s most famous letter and almost certainly his most beautiful and touching letter was the last message he ever wrote to the American people. On November 5, 1994, the 83-year-old former President released this handwritten letter on his personal stationery to the American people — a simple, elegant announcement so raw that, when he made a mistake towards the end, he merely crossed out the word and left it on the page. It was the letter that began Ronald Reagan’s long goodbye:
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 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 clear 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 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.
Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, who was never afraid to be critical or controversial about Reagan, probably summed it up best in PBS’s American Experience documentary of the 40th President:
"I can’t think of anything I’ve seen that was so transparently honest, courageous, and articulate. The writing had the ultimate quality of good writing which is unblinking acceptance of the truth. I find it very difficult to think emotionally about Ronald Reagan, but that is one thing he did that catches me in the heart — the courage with which he left his conscious life. The courage with which he stopped. He simply stopped."
President Reagan was rarely seen in public following his announcement in November 1994. The journey that led him into the sunset of his life ended on June 5, 2004, when he died at his home in Southern California at the age of 93. After full military honors, lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and the first State Funeral in over 30 years, Reagan was buried at his Presidential Library on a mountaintop in Simi Valley, California — fittingly, the 40th President was interred in his tomb at sunset.
That isn’t a myth or a cliché. Not only do I think that a Secret Service agent would take a bullet for the President, but a Secret Service agent already HAS taken a bullet for the President!
This is March 30, 1981, as President Reagan leaves the Washington Hilton. In this first photo, John Hinckley, Jr. has just fired his first shots at Reagan and you can see the reaction. The blonde-haired agent in the blue-gray suit at the center of the photo is Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy:
Behind McCarthy, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr is shoving President Reagan into the limo. Not only is McCarthy reacting to the gunshots, he’s turning the front of his body towards them:
This is no accident or stroke of bad luck. Milliseconds have passed, but Agent McCarthy has shifted his body into a wide stance and is literally shielding President Reagan, who can still somewhat be seen directly behind McCarthy as Agent Parr keeps shoving the President into the limousine:
In that instant, as Hinckley was firing his shots at President Reagan, Agent McCarthy instinctively (yet consciously) recognized the danger, understood the consequences, realized what he had been trained to do, and, yes, in a superhero move, used his body as a shield and took a bullet for the President of the United States:
Of course, we know that President Reagan was still shot and nearly killed during this assassination attempt, but the bullet that struck Reagan had ricocheted off the limo and hit him. The quick-thinking and incredible heroism of Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy probably saved the 70-year-old President from taking another bullet, and he probably saved lead agent Jerry Parr from being shot, as well.
To reiterate, Tim McCarthy didn’t just happen to accidentally get caught in the crossfire — he consciously turned himself towards the gunfire, purposely spread himself into a wide stance, and used his body as a shield so that John Hinckley, Jr. would shoot him instead of President Reagan. So, yes, I think other Secret Service agents would do the same. In fact, one member of President Truman’s protective detail was killed and two were wounded in 1950 when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House, the temporary Presidential home while the White House was being renovated, and assassinate President Truman.
By the way, Agent McCarthy fully recovered from his wound.
I think that Eisenhower and Reagan probably would have been tempted to seek a third term, if possible. They both had health problems during their Presidencies, but I could see Eisenhower seeking a third term anyway. He had a difficult time stepping away, which is one reason why he waited so long to give Richard Nixon a solid endorsement in 1960. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence in Nixon’s abilities, but partly because Ike felt that he (Ike) was still the best man for the job.
Reagan, like Clinton, loved being President, too. But when Reagan left office in 1989, he was about two weeks away from his 78th birthday and, according to his official biographer, Edmund Morris, there were signs that he may have been facing the early stages of his Alzheimer’s in the last few weeks of his Administration. Since President Reagan looked relatively healthy and definitely looked fit for his age, it’s difficult for people to realize that he was almost a full eight years older than Eisenhower (70) was when Ike left office. Even if Eisenhower had served another term, Ike still would have been four years younger than Reagan at the end of that third term. I think Reagan’s age and deteriorating health would have prevented him from a third term if it was Constitutionally possible. As closely as his public image was protected by Nancy Reagan, there is no way she would have stood by while he hung on for another term and publicly started to suffer from serious Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interesting thing is that, if they had the opportunity to run for a third term and their health allowed it, I think Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all would have been easily elected to another term. I think George W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time with seeking a third term, if possible. However, I don’t think Bush would have run again even if he was Constitutionally eligible. In those last few months of 2008, President Bush looked SO ready to get back to Texas. Even if his chances of being re-elected were positive, I still think he would have chosen retirement instead of a third term.
As for the second part of your question, I think that Truman would have stepped away in 1952, no matter what. All Truman ever wanted to do was remain a U.S. Senator. When he was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential candidate, he was not interested, and when others reminded him that President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely wouldn’t survive the term, Truman declared that he didn’t want to be President either. Of course, he was elected Vice President and as in the case of almost every VP who succeeds to the Presidency, once Truman got to the White House he wanted to be elected to a term in his own right. Still, before Eisenhower declared that he was a Republican, Truman was suggesting that he (Truman) would be happy to step aside and be Eisenhower’s running mate if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. So, Harry Truman did not mind retiring home to Missouri in 1952, and I think he would have done so, no matter what.
LBJ’s case was different. The fact that he was very nearly upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary by Eugene McCarthy really shook President Johnson up and showed that he was vulnerable. If there wasn’t a serious challenge from within his own party — first from McCarthy and then from RFK — LBJ would have stayed in that race in 1968. Despite his withdrawal from the race, deep down LBJ still had a flicker of hope that the Democratic National Convention would be deadlocked, turn to the outgoing LBJ, draft him into the race, nominate him, and he’d be the conquering hero, vanquishing Nixon and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
LBJ was also a man of contradictions, though. Throughout his life, he always said that he would die young because all of the men in his family died by the time they were 64 or 65. As much as Johnson was addicted to power and craved the love of the American people (something that he never received like JFK did, which “broke his heart” according to Richard Nixon), he was also deeply worried that another four years in the White House would kill him. Worse yet, he would suffer an incapacitating stroke like Woodrow Wilson. LBJ often had a nightmare where he fell ill like Wilson and was an invalid — a shell of a once-powerful man bedridden or feebly being rolled through the White House in a wheelchair. It was an macabre thing to think about, but it was something that frequently haunted President Johnson, especially because he had suffered a near-fatal massive heart attack in 1955 when he was Senate Majority Leader. The confident, arrogant, impetuous, strong-willed LBJ wanted to take on Nixon and serve four more years in the White House. The sensitive, insecure, depressed LBJ considered resigning, didn’t think he’d live through the next term (1969-1973), and often had to receive a pep talk from Lady Bird to get his act together and go to work. So, with LBJ, it would actually depend on which LBJ you got on decision day when it comes to whether he would have sought a third term if not for the disastrous results of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
By the way, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. If he had served a third term, it would have ended on January 20, 1973, just two days prior to the day that he actually died.
40th President of the United States (1981-1989)
Full Name: Ronald Wilson Reagan
Born: February 6, 1911, Graham Building, 111-113 South Main Street, Tampico, Illinois
Term: January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: George Herbert Walker Bush
Died: June 5, 2004, 668 St. Cloud Road, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California
Buried: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California
There are many aspects of being President of the United States. First and foremost is the President as a political leader, commander-in-chief, chief executive of the federal government, and administrator of all of the departments which make up the Executive Branch. Yet, there is also the public relations role. A role which sometimes calls for inspirational leadership, motivational leadership, the skills for challenging Americans to be their best that is almost like the skills required of a great athletic coach. This part of the Presidency is an almost paternal role, and it is best exhibited in trying moments like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the bombing of the Marine barrracks in Beirut. No one was better at this part of the Presidency than Ronald Reagan, and that means something in these rankings. Reagan wasn’t the best manager/administrator, but he was a rock star politically and, when the nation needed their President to make them feel like everything would be okay, Ronald Reagan was usually there to say the right things with his comforting voice and warm easy smile. That may not make you the best President and the metrics may not put him in the top tier, but something is to be said for someone who makes Americans feel good and strong and safe.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: 22 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 25 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 6 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 6 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 18 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 8 of 40