Passings: Ronald Reagan
A DOVE AND A SONNET
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
I wonder if there isn't someone out there watching the endless procession of mourners filing past President Ronald Reagan's coffin as it lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda saying over and over to themselves, as each new tear-streaked face is caught for a moment by the C-Span camera, "Fools! Fools! Fools!" It is the irony of ironies that this wise soul will have to say those words a hundred million times.
Have not one small iota of doubt that many of those "fools" are Democrats. Ronald Reagan, as I would know him, belonged not to his party but to his country, and I think his life made that abundantly clear. Others will argue; that's what makes a ball game. Yet his death, and how he is honored in it, is a testament to the way in which he reached the deeper convictions of his people, both those who greeted his "morning in America" and those who rejected most of his politics and warmly embraced the man. I am one of those.
As a supporter of John Kerry since I met him in 1971, it does not particularly behoove me to write well of Reagan, whom I believe will soon be Senator Kerry's predecessor. Nor does the obvious contrast between the late president and the sometimes stumbling and graceless speech of President George W. Bush help him. One poster in the crowd as Wednesday cortege passed by pointedly read, "Now there was a President!" Enough said.
Yes, you can catalog Reagan's flaws as quickly as his virtues. I really don't care. What matters most to me is what I am left with in my own heart when the soul that inspired me has passed from this life, and in Ronald Reagan's case it is the fullness of his love for his country, and his personal generosity to me.
At a time in my life when I was hungry quite often, and had little to show myself for all my nameless struggles, he wrote to me - twice. Getting those letters on White House stationery and signed by his own hand - I later learned that he had written them himself in longhand, then had them typed - made sense of a bewildering thicket of desperate days and ideas. They restored me and they succor me today.
I have a letter of that kind from John Kerry, too, a longer one and just as thoughtful. It's one way I know he will be a magnificent President. It helps me know that like President Reagan, it is not a man's power or wealth or social status that matters most to him. It is something else: it is this America we hold in common, the America we quietly believe in when almost every other belief has been utterly voided by science, cynicism and rage. It is something you cannot separate an American from because it doesn't appear in his list of assets or hide in his billfold. And no man or woman without that America nestling deeply in his soul should ever become President. So long as this America is there, we will fare well.
I once saw a dove fly out of President Ronald Reagan's mouth; I really did. It was a white flash of wings that suddenly rose and vanished when he spoke the word "hope" in the phrase, "the last best hope of mankind" in a State of the Union speech. The 19th Century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once saw it, too - "And, ah, bright wings!", he wrote. President Reagan inspired me to write a sonnet, too, when he spoke so eloquently of the struggle for freedom in Poland shortly after he took office.
A woman I loved immensely called me and said she was going to a Catholic church to light a candle, and I said I would meet her there. But I had no car, and the meeting never took place; we drifted painfully apart, but my sonnet at least made sense of it. "He sang the names that force will never break," I wrote. "And will you there forgive my coming late, to keep our candles burning through the night? I've come, my love, and o, you're gone; but two uplifting flames now glow as one."
That woman climbed up and sat on my shoulders at the back of the Century Plaza ballroom on the night Ronald Reagan made his victory speech in 1980. In the LA Weekly, publisher Jay Levin published a prediction of an assassination attempt I sent him three weeks before the Hickey attempt; it said he would be shot as he emerged from an elevator and left a four or five-story building. And I was there alone - with two thousand other people - when he was re-elected in 1984. I knew his barber, Harry Dreiser, or at least had my hair cut by him. Three of the men I worked for as a political aide in Manhattan were his New York State co-chairman, and under him one became an Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Control, another the head of the nation's mass transit agency, UMTA, and a third was elected and served under him in Congress; a childhood friend was an Assistant to the President. A Greek shipowner I met at the Café Beverly Hills during that time told me the Administration was offloading arms in Haifa for shipment to Iran (I tipped the Los Angeles Times). When the president appointed a special commission on organized crime, a four-year effort of my own to investigate elements of the mob was delivered to their closed-door meeting at the Beverly Wilshire. Just yesterday, former Reagan speechwriter Patrick Buchanan told me in an AOL Instant Message that "He was a great man, and it was an honor to work for him." In a hundred different ways, President Ronald Reagan made small positive differences in my life.
So, I too am a Reagan fool.
Saying goodbye to him is not hard; there is nothing departed about him. He left something of himself in every heart that loves America; a dove and a sonnet are mine to keep.