Capitol Beat OK

Death comes to us all, but the American Constitutional Republic lives

By Patrick B. McGuigan

In another of her graceful and poetic columns for The Wall Street Journal, written just after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, Peggy Noonan captured the grace and poetry of her old boss, Ronald Reagan, and the friendship the two men had. Peggy, who can write better than just about anyone, once told me she was in awe of Reagan’s writing and communication abilities during the year’s she served him in the nation’s capital.

One speech she helped Reagan with, in 1985, was prepared in honor of President John F. Kennedy. It was delivered at Ted Kennedy’s home in suburban McLean, Virginia. Peggy let “the boss” do his own talking in her recent essay highlighting Reagan’s tribute to his predecessor.

Reagan said that night that President Kennedy always seemed “a man of the most interesting contradictions, very American contradictions. We know from his many friends and colleagues, we know in part from the testimony available at the [John F. Kennedy] library, that he was both self-deprecating and proud, ironic and easily moved, highly literate yet utterly at home with the common speech of the working man. … He could cuss a blue streak — but then, he’d been a sailor.”

“As a leader, as a president,” Reagan said John Kennedy “seemed to have a good, hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices. He had written a book as a very young man about why the world slept as Hitler marched on, and he understood the tension between good and evil in the history of man — understood, indeed, that much of the history of man can be seen in the constant working out of that tension.”

Reagan did not seek false friendship in papered-over differences about issues that matter, and ideas that have consequences. He never backed John Kennedy, yet grace found a way to bridge some of the gap: “I was for the other fellow. But you know, it’s true: When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor. He would have understood. He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough, no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle.

“Everything we saw him do seemed to show a huge enjoyment of life; he seemed to grasp from the beginning that life is one fast-moving train, and you have to jump aboard and hold on to your hat and relish the sweep of the wind as it rushes by. You have to enjoy the journey, it’s unthankful not to. I think that’s how his country remembers him, in his joy.”

When I first heard Barack Obama speak on television a couple of years ago, I was impressed. When he came to Oklahoma City for a rally at the old Farmer’s Market, a packed-house event organized by state Sen. Andrew Rice, I covered it.

I reported at the time, and repeated often thereafter, that I’d seen the kind of passion Obama evoked in the crowd two other times: at Reagan rallies in 1976, and at Jesse Jackson events during his first unsuccessful run for the presidency.

Robin Dorner met then-Senator Obama that same day in May 2007. While I covered the rally, Robin went to an Obama fundraiser in Northwest Oklahoma City.

I asked her recently why she admires him. She replied succinctly: “I have followed his work since mid-2006, months before he announced his candidacy for President. When I met him, I told him that I had contacted him in a letter before he announced his candidacy, and he said those kinds of letters influenced his decision to run.”

Robin reflects, “I believe that a leader is someone who is among his followers. He is one of them, but when it comes to decision-making, everyone can see that he is the leader. I see this with Barack Obama. It concerns me when people are so focused on criticism of our President. He is our leader; respect that.”

I’ve grown frustrated with many of Obama’s policies, which seem more aggressive than positions he took during the campaign. Still, he is a formidable politician, and recent reports of his political descent seem exaggerated. Besides, Obama respects Reagan, and that speaks well of him. 

Reagan will always be my model for principled and fearless advocacy of an inclusive brand of conservatism. It was his hopeful brand of politics that attracted me as a boy, embraced me as a young man and comforted me in middle age, an armor against the disappointment, betrayal and heartbreak of “the real political world.”

After he died in 2004, I remembered the man who grieved when the baby daughter of one of my friends died during his presidency. For years after, he asked his staff how the mother was doing. His short handwritten notes comforted her tremendously.

I watched Reagan closely in several meetings during his presidency. It has been said he was an ordinary man. That’s not quite right, for he was extraordinarily kind — offering a coaster or a napkin or making some small gesture to those on each side, chatting about everything from the weather to last weekend’s ball games. In moments of grace, he remembered (without note cards) little things about certain visitors that endeared him. I’ve encountered a few women politicians with similar disarming charm, but no other man quite like Reagan.

I remember a White House party for Kenneth Cribb, an advisor to Reagan. When Ken left the administration during the president’s second term, I was invited to his farewell party. My daughter, Erin Kathleen, was out of school that day, so I brought her along. When Reagan came in, he smiled and waved, complimenting her dress. For a moment, he made sure she was the center of everyone’s attention. She still recalls that time when the most powerful man on the planet paid attention to a little girl. 

I remember as well an interview with me and three other conservative journalists. Sensing our concern about the country’s future, he told us, “ It helps to have a sense of history when thinking about these things. A generation ago, conservatives had no real voice in the universities, the media, or in either political party.”

That day, I handed him a compilation of essays on criminal justice which I had edited, “Crime and Punishment in Modern America.” The last chapter in that particular book was written by Jack Kemp.

Like other visitors to the Oval Office, I saw my chance and took it. As our encounter wound down, I had some moments to sketch the book’s advocacy of alternatives to incarceration for certain crimes, and a broad emphasis on “restorative justice,” the Scriptural view advanced most prominently in recent decades by Charles Colson. Reagan indicated he’d take a look at the book.

Some weeks later, a friend working at the White House called. He’d just sat in on a meeting where there had been lengthy discussion over proposed changes in the federal sentencing guidelines. The president, as was his habit, mostly listened. Near the end of the session, Reagan said, “I’ve been doing some reading, and thinking, about this.”

Of course, everyone in the meeting listened as he gave a brief synopsis of key arguments from the book I’d given him. He asked his aides to take a fresh look at some provisions in the guidelines. Hearing about that was, intellectually, about as satisfying a moment as I’ve ever experienced.

The book Kemp “anchored” for me was the one most favorably reviewed by liberal critics. Two decades later, Robin encountered Kemp when he came to Oklahoma for the 2008 Speaker’s Ball. He was a co-host with David Boren at the event, and she noted what a likable guy he was. I regaled her with stories of dinners with Kemp at the Monocle on Capitol Hill, “back in the day.” 

My intersections with Reagan didn’t end with the crime book. I wrote a book about what Robert Bork calls “the bloody crossroads” of American politics — that place where partisanship and the rule of law intersect, and clash. In the aftermath of Judge Bork’s Supreme Court confirmation defeat in 1987 and especially in the afterword of my book, “Ninth Justice,” I was critical of  the Gipper’s leadership in the most important judicial confirmation fight of the 20th Century. When it was published, some of his friends scolded me, but Reagan never had a bad word to say.

After his presidency, when I left Washington in 1990, my most prized possession was a generous letter he sent. Reagan charitably ignored my criticisms, although I have reason to believe he read them. He encouraged others to read my book about Bork, to learn lessons for the future.

When, in 1994, his remarkable letter to the American people announced he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, my good wife wrote a passionate love letter to the Reagans. A kind letter of acknowledgment is among our treasured keepsakes. Perhaps his most remarkable accomplishment was the love he gave to America, and the example he set for wearing power so lightly.

When Obama ran for president, he caught flack from some allies for unrehearsed praise he offered to Reagan’s memory and even his substance. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it,” Obama said.

When the president met with Reagan’s widow this summer, making up for an unfortunate quip – about which, the less said, the better — he got it just about right: “President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics — that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day.”

Then, when Jack died this year, Obama reflected: “Jack Kemp’s commitment to public service and his passion for politics influenced not only the direction of his party, but his country. From his tenure as a Buffalo congressman to his ascent in national politics, Jack Kemp was a man who could fiercely advocate his own beliefs and principles while also remembering the lessons he learned years earlier on the football field: that bitter divisiveness between race and class and station only stood in the way of the ‘common aim of a team to win.’”

When President Obama presented Kemp a posthumous Medal of Freedom on August 12, he commented, “Told he was too small to play college football, Jack Kemp became a pro quarterback. Cut by four teams, he led the Buffalo Bills to two championships. Football, he once said, gave him a good sense of perspective about politics: He’d ‘already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, [and traded ] .’ Makes me feel better. A conservative thinker, a Republican leader, and a defender of civil rights, he was that rare patriot who put country over party, never forgetting what he learned on the gridiron — that it takes each of us doing our part, and all of us working together, to achieve a common goal. It’s a life from which we can all draw lessons, Democrat and Republican alike.”

Which brings me back to Reagan himself, and the closing of that memorable speech about JFK, delivered 24 years ago. People who knew him well, like Peggy Noonan, and not well enough, like me, lift up Reagan’s memory in part because he said things like the following about the place where he lived so nobly for eight years, and about those who lived there before he did:

“I have 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. … 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.”

I tell stories like those above because I want to believe America can get past the terrible divide we face today, that free people can indeed preserve the Constitutional Republic that Ben Franklin, James Madison and all the Founders gave us. The Constitution forged in those great minds, the heroic history that elevated George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams led to the trials and triumphs of Jack Kennedy and Ron Reagan, and to today.

Death comes to us all, but somehow the Republic lives. Let’s keep it.