Chasing the Reagan Legacy
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, like so many Republicans today, continually try to grab onto Ronald Reagan’s legacy and call it theirs. They might know my father’s politics — but they didn’t know the man.
After the first Republican presidential debate last September at the Reagan Library, I wrote a piece for Time.com about how all the candidates seek to stuff themselves into my father’s image. Ironic, since he never tried to imitate anyone.
What set my father apart was his character – the very thing that can’t be successfully imitated or cobbled together in strategy sessions or rehearsals.
With all the talk about the economy being the most important thing in this election, I have a different opinion. Certainly the economy is important. So is health care. So is the fact that young men and women are being sent to fight wars in places where we don’t belong. In countries whose cultures we don’t understand.
But what people want more than anything – what they hunger for – is someone whose character can be trusted. Someone they can lean on when tragedies come, regardless of political ideology.
I’m not being partisan here — I don’t see those qualities on either side of the political fence. That is the true sadness of our times. A friend said: “I’m tired of being uninspired.”
Whatever anyone thought (or thinks now) of my father’s politics or his record as president, most people would acknowledge that he cared deeply, passionately, unconditionally about America and its teeming masses. He saw no difference between a billionaire and a gas station attendant; he made no distinctions based on race or religion. All were God’s children in his eyes.
Someday we will probably look back on this election as a time when people plodded to the voting booth of obligation – wishing they felt inspired – but instead voting for the candidate they thought would do the least amount of harm.
That kind of poverty runs deep. It’s in the currents of our collective spirit. And it’s a far bigger issue than the economy.
Whenever I or my brother Ron discuss about our father, there is a predictable response from some on the far right — that because we didn’t share our father’s political views, we somehow don’t fully know him.
But we knew him in the ways that children always know their parents. We knew, as toddlers, how to delight him, how to make him laugh and stop whatever he was doing to play with us. We knew how deeply he believed in doing the right thing, whether it was taking in a dog someone had dumped along the road near our ranch, or diving into the pool fully dressed to rescue a little girl sinking beneath the surface at a crowded birthday party.
We knew him as the man who gently presided over the passing of beloved animals, teaching us in the process that all God’s creatures deserve dignity.
As teenagers, we knew how to challenge him, even anger him. Because that’s what you do in those years when you think you know everything. It’s a rite of passage to aim for your parents’ soft spots.
We also knew him as a father who, at times, was puzzled by the task. Why did his kids want more of him? He was the son of an alcoholic. It was enough to have his father come home at night and stay sober.
We knew him as adults who had to accept that he loved this country profoundly – so much so that pursuing the presidency wasn’t a career move, it was a calling.
And we knew him in the last decade of his life, when Alzheimer’s erased years from his memory, but couldn’t erode his humility or his character.
As Ron, in his beautiful eulogy, said of our father: “He was the most plainly decent man you could ever hope to meet.”
Note to candidates: You can’t manufacture this. It either exists in your bloodstream, or it doesn’t.
PHOTO: Former President Ronald Reagan in an undated file photo. Ho New / Reuters