In their joy: Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and the Republic

Oklahoma City – A few years ago, during one of her visits to Oklahoma City for a speech, I spent time with columnist Peggy Noonan, a friend from my decade of work in Washington, D.C.

Ted Kennedy had died a few days before. Our conversation turned not to Ted, but to Ronald Reagan’s relationship with the Kennedy family in general, and respect for John F. Kennedy in particular. 

Peggy, who can write better than just about anyone, remains in awe of Reagan’s writing and communication abilities during the years she served him in the nation’s capital.

One speech she helped Reagan with, in 1985, was delivered at Ted Kennedy’s home in suburban McLean, Virginia, at a tribute to JFK.

Reagan said that night that President Kennedy always seemed “a man of the most interesting contradictions, very American contradictions. … 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, un-illusioned understanding of man and his political choices.” 

Reagan did not seek false friendship in papered-over differences about things that matter. He knew that ideas have consequences. He never backed John Kennedy, yet grace found a way to bridge the gap: “When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor.” 

“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.”

First JFK, then Reagan, practiced a hopeful brand of politics. That attracted me as a young man and has comforted me in middle age, an armor against the disappointment, betrayal and heartbreak of “the real political world.” My politics are more like Reagan’s than JFK’s, yet often I ponder their common graces.

Some say Reagan was an ordinary man. My view, based on several meetings and other interactions, is that’s not quite right. 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.

One of my most prized possessions is his generous letter encouraging people to read my 1990 analysis of the failed effort to confirm Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. The book was pointedly critical of my favorite president. Reagan ignored the criticisms, and encouraged others to read my book, to learn lessons for the future.

The calendar comes to Nov. 22 every year, that awful day when a young president died in Dallas. When nuns at my school announced Jack Kennedy had been murdered, my classmates and I went into shock. It was quite some time before we refocused on being children, and things were different when we did. 

On that long-ago night with the Kennedy family, Reagan waxed lyrical as he shared stories about the roll call of presidents who in some way still reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including JFK.

The conservative president told a tender kind of White House ghost story:

“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.”

Free people can preserve the Constitutional Republic that Ben Franklin, James Madison and 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.

The Republic which Ben Franklin envisioned survives. Let’s keep it.

You may contact Pat at