Essay / Politics

Reagan is dead.

The greatest president of my lifetime has died. My thoughts as he faded below:Of Bad Sons:The Death of the World War II Generation CBS is getting ready to air a miniseries on Ronald Reagan. Along with a great many other conservatives, I heard clips from it during the Rush Limbaugh show this week. What I heard disgusted me and made me cry. Politics does not usually drive me to tears, since like all good conservatives I don’t take it that seriously. But the dishonor to a gentleman and a president that it contains filled me with sorrow for the base and ignoble men who would allow such a thing to be made. Weak men who would not have dared to face the Reagan wit when he was well are going to ridicule him as he is dying. The aging lion cannot strike back so the jackals circle for the kill. I only remember crying one other time when watching a political event. Oddly, it came during the funeral of a lesser man than Ronald Reagan. I cried at the Nixon funeral. Richard Nixon is the first president I remember. His victory in 1972 is the first political contest I can recall. His resignation during the Watergate scandal came on my mother’s birthday at summer camp. In my upstate New York elementary school, they introduced us to voting machines that were still set up for the 1972 presidential race. Even though it was at the end of the long Watergate scandal, my class overwhelmingly voted for the President. None of those facts is of any great historic or much personal significance. Nixon was not a hero to me in any sense of the word. But I cried when they buried Richard Nixon. I cried, because the camera forced me to look at faces at the funeral. It was the first time I realized that leadership was being passed to a generation unready for it. The unblinking eye of the camera forced me to acknowledge that my grandfather’s generation had become old. This seemed unthinkably sad to me. America has relied on their wisdom for so long. Wouldn’t they always be our wise grandfathers home from the wars to lead us? Their legacy was so great and good that it seems to have debilitated the next two generations. We either resent these members of the Greatest Generation or we despair of emulating them. The presidents that remained sat in a row at the Nixon funeral. They looked tired, every one of them. Even Reagan, the greatest of them all, could no longer pretend to be the future and not the past. In the eighties and nineties, Reagan fooled us for a little while. We could believe that the World War II generation might have found life and youth eternal. Reagan’s mane of thick hair, strong chest, and crooked grin seemed to defy age. He got older, but not old. His face crinkled, but did not wrinkle. But the day of Nixon’s funeral, even Ronald Wilson Reagan had the look of a man who saw his own future. To me he looked old, frail, and tired.It was bitter to me on that day that the last of their line was the first President Bush. George Herbert Walker Bush was the youngest of the Greatest Generation, but his time passed. One of the youngest fighter pilots in the Pacific, he was a modest man with immoderate accomplishments. He never learned the modern art of immoderate self-promotion over moderate deeds. He lived to an age when dignity was replaced by the need to do MTV and that was the only mission he could not fly. When I was little, I trusted Richard Nixon. Later, a better Californian would restore faith Nixon had lost. Yet even Nixon seemed more competent burdened with his vice, than the present generation of politicians gifted with scant virtue. The Greatest Generation had seen the world at war and in depression. Such men had a sense of their own limits and of the seriousness of life. They had won the right to respect and honor in numerous ways. Their very faults were the stuff of great tragedy, not the petty self-gratification of the first Boomer president. William Jefferson Clinton sat at the end of that row of men at Nixon’s funeral. He did not look old, rather much like a gray headed boy in that company of real men. Clinton rose and he spoke well as he always did. The Greatest Generation gave the Boomers those skills. The old men acted, the Boomers went to school. There they learned to despise the traditional ways, but also learned the art of rhetoric. Taught to despise their fathers, by pale academics who confused Stalin with Christ and Castro with Washington, they become men of no consequence. Clinton and his cohorts never learned the pain of sin and sacrifice except in their personal lives. Their fathers faced down Hitler. The Boomers, when not cosseted from problems, faced drunken parents or a failure of person ambition. They did not know cosmic, but petty evil. So in his speech, Clinton offered Nixon the easy grace of his generation. His was a dissonant note in the pageant of the old republic.We were, for perhaps one of the last times, spared the cloying limp religion of the modern divinity school. Billy Graham, his aging voice still calling us home, gave the universal call of a salvation bought by the pain and suffering of a cross. Graham knew that it was grace that saved a wretch like Nixon. But Billy Graham looked so frail that day, the tomb of his spirit is fast fading away. It was Franklin his son who would pray at the inauguration of the second Bush. So I cried that day at the pain of their parting and for the same reason cried again when I heard what we will soon do to Ronald Reagan. Who will lead us now that you all are going? You defeated fascism and communism. You gave us the most prosperous nation in human history. For this only you can be blamed: you did not teach the eternal verities you learned to your children. If we could, we would make you stay and lead us forever. But Tennyson was right: “the old order changeth, giving place to new, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” No generation is without fault. The very greatest of one group of men may contain the seeds of imperfection that would destroy mankind if they were eternal. In some ways, the Greatest Generation lingered too long. They were so good, so determined to spare their children what they faced, that we took too long to grow up. Boomers were allowed to be children into their fifties. The nineties were handed to us so peaceful and prosperous that we could engage in Woodstock in Washington seemingly with no penalty. But 9/11 forced a rapid maturity. For this we know: Ronald Reagan will not return to battle the forces of radical Islam. He fought with unrelenting, dogged, even fanatical determination against communism. He defeated it, but now the Cold War is past and Reagan the Cold Warrior must move on to some better place there to heal his wounds. This new battle is led by George Walker Bush, the quintessential Boomer. The younger Bush knows the pain of the quest for personal peace and affluence. He knows it is a dead end. He has found personal redemption and is answering the call that has come at last to his generation. And by all that is holy, he seems ready for the challenge. Soon he will face some Howard Dean type, some lost Boomer, still whining about the details. I trust America has grown up with President Bush enough to reject the petulant adolescent who only knows how to complain, but also is desperate to grow up to president to add to his resume. George Bush has accepted the mantle of global responsibility. The Howard Dean’s still don’t realize that their irresponsible frat boy rants about the men in power are taken seriously by our enemies. Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfield are grown ups doing a hard job. I believe America’s Boomers have at last realized that they are in charge. Mom and Dad cannot save the world this time while they protest harmlessly. By winning the first phase of the War against Terror, the Boomers have one last shot at grown up greatness. If not, then there really will be a good reason to cry one last time.

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