One of the things I like most about the writing of conservative columnist Peggy Noonan is the way she engages both the intellect and the emotions. Nowhere is that more evident than in an essay about President Ronald Reagan. Noonan was Reagan’s speech writer, and looking back at many of those speeches it’s easy to see how effectively the Great Communicator touched both the head and heart of his audience.
The following is excerpted from an essay written by Noonan for the PBS special, “Character Above All.”
“In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. White Houses are always full of quick-witted people with ready advice on how to flip a senator or implement a strategy. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks.
“But you can’t buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him. If he does, they will give meaning and animation to the great practical requirement of the presidency: He must know why he’s there and what he wants to do. He has to have thought it through. He needs to have, in that much maligned word, but a good one nontheless, a vision of the future he wishes to create. This is a function of thinking, of the mind, the brain.
“But a vision is worth little if a president doesn’t have the character – the courage and heart – to see it through….
“(Reagan) had the vision. Did he have the courage without which it would be nothing but a poignant dream? Yes. At the core of Reagan’s character was courage, a courage that was, simply, natural to him, a courage that was ultimately contagious. When people say President Reagan brought back our spirit and our sense of optimism, I think what they are saying in part is, the whole country caught his courage.
“There are many policy examples, but I believe when people think of his courage, they think first of what happened that day in March 1981 when he was shot. He tried to walk into the hospital himself but his knees buckled and he had to be helped. They put him on a gurney, and soon he started the one-liners. Quoting Churchill, he reminded everyone that there’s nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect. To Mrs. Reagan, it was, ‘Honey, I forgot to duck.’ To the doctors, ‘I just hope you’re Republicans.’ To which one doctor replied, ‘Today Mr. President we’re all Republicans.’ Maybe he caught Reagan’s courage too.
“But Reagan the political figure had a form of courage that I think is the hardest and most demanding kind. A general will tell you that anyone can be brave for five minutes; the adrenaline pumps, you do things of which you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable.
“But Reagan had that harder and more exhausting courage, the courage to swim against the tide…
“His courage was composed in part of intellectual conviction and in part of sheer toughness.
“When we think of Reagan, we think so immediately of his presidency that we tend to forget what came before. What came before 1980 was 1976 – and Reagan’s insurgent presidential bid against the incumbent Republican President Jerry Ford. Ford was riding pretty high, he was the good man who followed Nixon after the disgrace of Watergate; but Ford was a moderate liberal Republican, and Reagan thought he was part of the problem, so he declared against him.
“He ran hard. And by March 1976 he had lost five straight primaries in a row. He was in deep trouble–eleven of twelve former chairmen of the Republican National Committee called on him to get out of the race, the Republican Conference of Mayors told him to get out, on March 18 the Los Angeles Timestold him to quit.
“The Reagan campaign was $2 to $3 million in debt, and they were forced to give up their campaign plane for a small leased jet, painted yellow, that they called ‘The Flying Banana.’ On March 23, they were in Wisconsin, where Reagan was to address a bunch of duck hunters. Before the speech, Reagan and his aides gathered in his room at a dreary hotel to debate getting out of the race. The next day there would be another primary, in North Carolina, and they knew they’d lose. Most of the people in the room said, ‘It’s over, we have no money, no support, we lost five so far and tomorrow we lose six.’
“John Sears, the head of the campaign, told the governor, ‘You know, one of your supporters down in Texas says he’ll lend us a hundred thousand dollars if you’ll rebroadcast that speech where you give Ford and Kissinger hell on defense.’ The talk went back and forth. Marty Anderson, the wonderful longtime Reagan aide who told me this story, said he sat there thinking, ‘This is crazy, another hundred grand in debt….’
“The talk went back and forth and then Reagan spoke. He said ‘Okay, we’ll do it. Get the hundred thousand, we’ll run the national defense speech.’ He said, ‘I am taking this all the way to the convention at Kansas City, and I don’t care if I lose every damn primary along the way.’ And poor Marty thought to himself, ‘Oh Lord, there are twenty-one….’
“The next night at a speech, Marty was standing in the back and Frank Reynolds of ABC News came up all excited with a piece of paper in his hand that said 55-45. Marty thought, ‘Oh, we’re losing by ten.’ And Reynolds said, ‘You’re winning by ten!’ Reagan was told, but he wouldn’t react or celebrate until he was back on the plane and the pilot got the latest results. Then, with half the vote in and a solid lead, he finally acknowledged victory in North Carolina with a plastic glass of champagne and a bowl of ice cream.
“Ronald Reagan, twenty-four hours before, had been no-money-no-support-gonna-lose-dead–but he made the decision he would not quit, and at the end he came within a whisker of taking the nomination from Ford…..”