Craig Shirley and Frank Donatelli recall …
In 1987, when he was informed that Democratic presidential aspirant Gary Hart was accused of extramarital activities, President Ronald Reagan reportedly quipped, “Boys will be boys. But boys will not be president.” In all matters, Reagan was wise.
For years, we have looked with skepticism at political operatives who claim to know what Ronald Reagan would have done in any given situation. The truth is, nobody can know. All we can do is study him. But what we do know is that Reagan was full of grace and charm and kindness, and it’s good to recall that as this sad campaign season winds down.
America’s 40th president was an essentially decent man. When Nancy Reynolds, a Sacramento press aide and close friend, began working for Reagan when he was governor of California, he had a heck of a time getting used to the idea of going through the doorway in front of a woman. When Ms. Reynolds, holding the door for the governor, questioned why, Reagan replied, “My mother told me ladies go through the door first.”
When writing in his private diary, Reagan could not even bring himself to write “hell.” Instead, he wrote “h–l.”
In 1983, two years after John Hinckley Jr. shot the president in the chest, Reagan quietly tried to reach out to the would-be assassin, not with a presidential pardon but an act of private Christian forgiveness. He was only dissuaded when doctors said the mentally disturbed young man would misunderstand Reagan’s gesture. Still, Reagan prayed for him.
Reagan was once caught on a hot microphone, although what he said seems quaint, almost genteel, by today’s standards. When he was asked for a sound check during the taping of a 1984 radio commentary, the president joshed, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The technicians all laughed, but soon after, liberal elites came down with manufactured vapors.
Over the course of his life, the Gipper sent thousands of letters to fans, friends and even opponents, many of whom remember his personal grace. During his stay in the hospital, recovering from the assassination attempt, nurses were astonished to find Reagan one day on his hands and knees, cleaning up some water he had spilled. The leader of the free world was wiping the floor so no one else would have to do it.
Reagan was insulted plenty of times over the course of his career, burned in effigy, sworn against, cursed and more—but in each instance, he turned away the invective with a smile and a quip. He was tough on issues, but rarely people, and certainly not personally. He wasn’t mean and didn’t engage in ad hominem attacks.
Reagan did call out extremists in the conservative ranks. He supported William F. Buckley Jr., who led the purge of the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society and spoke out against anti-Semitic elements in the conservative moment. He opposed the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure aimed at banning homosexuals and gay-rights supporters from working at public schools.
Reagan believed in the politics of addition, not subtraction. He looked for ways to add to his support by exuding optimism and preaching growth policies. He wanted to unify, not divide. At the Detroit Republican Convention in 1980, he made an open appeal to Democrats and Independents to join his “community of shared values.” That night, he also cited Franklin Roosevelt—to a hall full of Republicans.
This wasn’t some campaign facade that Reagan had acquired for political reasons. He had always had it. In his famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan paraphrased the admonition that Barry Goldwater had given to his own son: “There is no foundation like the rock of honesty and fairness, and when you begin to build your life on that rock, with the cement of the faith in God that you have, then you have a real start.”
In one of his final public speeches, at the 1992 Republican convention, Reagan said that he hoped history “will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears. To your confidence rather than your doubts.” He undoubtedly did.