Tom Shales: What George Bush could learn from the Gipper

Ronald and Nancy often beat lampooners to the punch by whimsically dissing themselves

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He knew who he was, and he knew what he dreamed, and with skills that earned him the nickname The Great Communicator, he was able to make his dreams ours

He knew who he was, and he knew what he dreamed, and with skills that earned him the nickname The Great Communicator, he was able to make his dreams ours. Ronald Reagan tapped into the American consciousness as few other presidents or political leaders have ever done and did it with ingratiating charm and unpretentious sincerity.

We loved him like a father or a grandfather or an older brother or a next-door neighbour or a guy down the road who liked to ride his horse and chop wood and even enjoyed clearing brush off his land. The point is, we loved him, and he loved America. People could quarrel with his ideas, but at least he had ideas. People could bristle at what he represented, but at least he represented something. In this he may have been the last of the old-style politicians.

And though he didn't serve in the armed forces during the Second World War, Reagan seemed very much the perfect flag-bearer for that "Greatest Generation" identified and idolised by news anchor Tom Brokaw. Reagan was a character created by Will Rogers or a figure from a painting by Norman Rockwell. He might have been considered corny if he wasn't always ready with a quip or a self-deprecating wisecrack to avert pomposity. It was a very American quality. Ronald Reagan was a very American American. He was the American's American, really. He was a president we could take pride in when he travelled to other countries, even if there was the occasional gaffe. Reagan deflected much ridicule by leading the laughter himself.

As president, Reagan essentially updated the fireside chat which his onetime idol, Franklin D Roosevelt, had invented for radio, and turned it into television. He was also adept, however, at delivering grand speeches for grand occasions, and even though he was speaking to vast crowds, he could still come across as accessible and folksy.

Reagan had good speechwriters, for sure, but the delivery always glorified the material rather than the other way around. Of all the speeches he made, the most momentous was probably the address he gave in Europe on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It was emotional, powerful, eloquent. I can't quote any of the exact lines, but I do remember this: it was so deeply moving that it made my mother cry.

Huddled before the television set that day, we felt a oneness with the rest of the country that normally happens only during catastrophes and tribulations. I felt a personal pride in the President that day, a feeling I don't think any president has inspired to that degree at any time since.

I did get to meet President Reagan a few times, one or two of them in the traditional Washington handshake march, with the President being trotted by eager faces and outstretched hands. But another occasion was much more intimate. Nancy Reagan hosted a screening of the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney, in the White House. The movie was made by Warner Bros., Reagan's old home studio when he worked in pictures.

Before the screening, Reagan spoke to the small crowd. He held up a pair of dancing shoes worn in the film and given to him by Cagney. Then Reagan recalled that there'd been talk at Warners that year of submitting Reagan's performance in Kings Row as the studio's bid for the Best Actor Oscar. Reagan said that while he would have liked that, he knew the nominee had to be Cagney, and deferred.

He never won an Oscar, no, but winning the presidency in two landslides is nothing to be sneezed at.

Many images from those years return now as Reagan and his times are recalled: the President with a hand cupped to his ear so he could hear Sam Donaldson's shouted question while a noisy helicopter awaited Reagan nearby ... the gallery of Reagan impersonators (Johnny Carson most prominent among them) who always tried to mimic the prefatory, "Well," with which Reagan answered questions ... and the stunning moment when Reagan stood in West Berlin and loudly implored - commanded, really - "Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!"

And torn down - eventually - it was.

Lampooning the presidency is a noble American tradition, but the Reagans, Ronald and Nancy, often beat potential lampooners to the punch by whimsically dissing themselves. Theirs was also called one of the great love stories of the 20th century.

Nancy Reagan was much maligned for allegedly extravagant ways during those years, but in recent years, her role has been seen more for the positive, resourceful and supportive performance that it was. Mrs Reagan is currently active in the drive to expand stem cell research in finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases, but President Bush has refused to reconsider his opposition.

Bush thinks he hears Jesus giving him orders. The gap between him and Ronald Reagan - in terms of stature, speaking ability, and overall presidentiality - is gargantuan.

The writer is a 'Washington Post' columnist

© 2004 The Washington Post

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