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  •              Typically, history credits an individual with greatness once that person has achieved a height only surmounted by a few.  The achievement alone, sometimes despite unworthiness elsewhere in his or her character, defines the person’s claim to greatness. Reagan painted image

                One also finds greatness in a worthy soul.  Those around this person benefit from the optimistic energy brought to problem solving, the inspiration from one whose natural inclination is to support, and the simple kindness of a gentle human being.  The strength of character of such individuals inevitably pushes them to the top of their chosen endeavors.  Such men and women, the classical Greeks and Romans called “virtuous,” a designation of true honor.

                On Wednesday, America and Young America’s Foundation honor the birthday of a man who would have found greatness in any calling, but happened to follow one of his country’s highest.  We celebrate the life of President Ronald Reagan.

                 Friends and foes alike credited Reagan for allowing his character and values to serve as the foundation for everything else, whether they agreed or disagreed with the direction of his ideas. They started with the consistent practice of treating every individual with respect and dignity.

                Reagan speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan related a story to author James Strock about the president’s basic humanity. An elderly Californian once misinterpreted a fundraising letter to be a personal invitation to meet Reagan.  She embarked on a cross-country trip to meet him, only to be naturally rebuffed at the gates of the White House. Staff members, knowing the president’s nature, alerted him to her misunderstanding.  She was invited on an impromptu tour which ended with Reagan spending much of the afternoon in conversation with her. George H. W. Bush recalled that the president never failed to amicably greet groundskeepers and other White House staff.  Reagan also had time to mentor the youth through his work with Young Americans for Freedom.

                Cicero once wrote in a study of virtue “deny no one the water that flows by.”  In this case, Reagan shared his time and his kindness. He expected nothing in return, but did not neglect his other duties. 

                To lead a free society, one must face critics. Some, such as George Washington and George W. Bush, erected a public face of seeming indifference.  Others, notably Barack Obama, Harry Truman, and others, clawed back with angry partisanship.  Reagan followed a style pioneered by Abraham Lincoln and few others. He affected a genuine self-effacement that never compromised his dignity, yet remained an intelligent communicator of ideas and values.  As former attorney general Ed Meese recalled, to make Reagan express himself on anything but core convictions was like “saying Babe Ruth should have learned to bunt.”

                A quick wit and flawless delivery was part of the Reagan charm. With a straight face, he “attacked” 1984 opponent Walter Mondale on his “youth and inexperience” to blunt worries about his own age.  After being nearly fatally shot, he jokingly asked if his attending doctor was a Republican.  Humor went hand in hand with grace. Jimmy Carter had relentlessly and personally hammered at Reagan in the 1980 election. When called upon to dedicate the 1986 opening of the Carter Museum, Reagan gave a speech of such warmth that his predecessor admitted “I think I understand more clearly now than I had ever before why you won.”  Part of Reagan’s success lay in never allowing politics to be personal, no matter what the nature of the attack.

                ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson remembered Reagan’s confidence and security. Despite “sharp questions . . . he was secure enough that it rolled off his back more than it rolled off other Presidents’ backs.” After one somewhat contentious interview with then candidate Reagan, CBS' Mike Wallace was invited to an amicable dinner with both Ronald and Nancy. The often critical 60 Minutes correspondent summed Reagan up with “Fact is, seldom have I seen a politician so underestimated by the press.”

                   Even his beloved Rancho Del Cielo reflected a character defined by what George Washington called "republican simplicity."  His ranch home could fit over four times inside of Al Gore's grandiose Nashville mansion, but Reagan's house with its grounds are renowned for their simple beauty and tranquility.  It is the home of a leader like Rome's Cincinnatus, who when through with public life retired quietly to his farm.

                All too often, many get captivated by incomplete greatness.  Some are inspired by a great personality that is otherwise hollowed out. Others admire a figure of public accomplishment, but of malevolent personality.  Their public deeds are used to justify their private meanness of spirit. Reagan, however, combines attributes of public achievement and private generosity, serving as a strong model of classical virtue.

               Ronald Reagan was not a great man because he was a great president.  Ronald Reagan was a great president because he was a great man.  And even if he had never for a second aspired towards that high office, he still would have been a remarkable and a worthy American.


    Stephen A. Smoot is Director of Academic Programs for National Journalism Center, a project of Young America's Foundation




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