November 2020: Musings on the constitutional democratic Republic we call America

NOTE: This is revised, adapted and updated from a commentary first posted in 2009.

Oklahoma City – Some musings on the state of the Republic, consciously walking around the last decade, to which I shall return in future reflections. 

When I first heard Barack Obama speak on television in 2007, I was impressed. 

When he came to Oklahoma City several months later for a rally at the old Farmer’s Market west of downtown – a packed-house event organized by then-state Sen. Andrew Rice — I covered it.

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

Robin Dorner, who now runs ‘The Gayly‘ newspaper in Oklahoma City but who worked with me then (a decade ago), 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 later 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 reflected, “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.”

As the years of his presidency and thereafter passed, I grew frustrated and then angry with Obama’s policies, which became much more aggressively liberal than positions he took during the 2008 campaign.

No doubt about this: He is a formidable politician. I do not share the view of those who confer on him a kind of secular sainthood. However, Obama respects Ronald 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, comforting me in middle age as an armor against the disappointment, betrayal and heartbreak of “the real political world.” And now, I am nearly as old as he was when he assumed the presidency in 1980.

I watched Reagan closely in several meetings during his tenure in the nation’s capital city. 
I have said it before: 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 an interview he endured 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, a U.S. representative from New York who ran for president himself, unsuccessfully.)

Like other visitors to the Oval Office, I saw my chance and took it during that small group meeting with Reagan. 
As the 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 that 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. My friend concluded his report this way: “McGuigan, you S-O-B, the president of the United States read your … book.” 

The book Kemp “anchored” for me was the one most favorably reviewed by liberal critics, including Alvin J. Bronstein of the American Civil Liberties Union 
Two decades later, my friend Robin encountered Jack when he came to Oklahoma for the 2008 Speaker’s Ball. He was a co-host at the event, and she noted what a likable guy he was.
On one occasion, I regaled Robin with stories of dinners with Kemp at the Monocle Restaurant on Capitol Hill, “back in the day.”

My intersections with Reagan didn’t end with the crime book or the events of his presidency.

I wrote a memoir (with Dawn M. Weyrich) about what the great Robert Bork called “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 1990 book, “Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork,” 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 hear me now: Reagan never had a bad word to say about it. In fact, quite the contrary.

When I left Washington, D.C. in 1990, two years after the Gipper’s presidency, my most prized possession became a generous letter he sent. Reagan charitably ignored all of my criticisms, although I have every reason reason to believe he read them. Instead, 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 Reagan’s most remarkable accomplishment was the love he gave to America, and the example he set for wearing power so lightly.

When Barack Obama first 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 President Obama met with Reagan’s widow in the summer of 2009, 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 Kemp died in 2009, 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, 2009, 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. 

People who knew him well, like Peggy Noonan, and not well enough, like me, still lift up Reagan’s memory because he said and did so many things we cherish, including his stories about the place where he lived so nobly for eight years.

I share stories about the past because I want to believe America in the future can transcend the terrible divide we face today. I believe that free people can indeed preserve the Constitutional Republic that Ben Franklin, James Madison and all the Founders gave us. 

I will not surrender my views of what is best for the country I love. What I believe is best bears  little resemblance to the agenda of the man who recently won the presidency, and only occasional resemblance to the views of the incumbent President he defeated.

My rights to hold such beliefs come from the One Who created me. 
This is one of those beliefs: The Constitution forged in 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 the events of recent years.

JFK and Reagan, Kemp and Bork, Bronstein and the Framers have all moved on to another sphere of existence. My time will come. 

Death comes to us all, but somehow the constitutional democratic Republic we call America lives on. 
Let’s keep it, or go down fighting.

Note: Minor grammatical changes, but no changes in substance or tone, were made in this essay two days after its first posting in November 2020.