Ronald Reagan

He brought Big Government to its knees and stared down the Soviet Union. And the audience loved it

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The result of Reagan's presidency? I asked him a few years after he left office what he thought his legacy was, how he would sum it up. It wasn't a very Reagan question: he didn't think much about his personal place in history, he thought about what was right and then tried to do it. But he told me he thought his eight years could be summed up this way: "He tried to expand the frontiers of human freedom in a world at peace with itself."

He came from nowhere, not from Hyannis or Greenwich but from nowhere. He was born above a store in Tampico, Ill., born in fact 16 years before Lucky Lindy landed in Paris. It is easy to romanticize the Midwest Reagan came from, but he didn't. "There was nothing in those towns," he told me when I asked, years ago, why he left. He wanted more, and got it, in Hollywood and beyond. But he was not just a lucky and blessed young man, a bright fellow smiled on by the gods. He had grit.

He showed one kind of grit by becoming a conservative in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. Just when everyone else was going left, particularly everyone in Hollywood who could enhance his career, he was going right. But he held to his position. It is easier to have convictions when they are shared by everyone around you; it is easier to hold to those convictions when you are surrounded by like-minded people. He almost never was.

He could take it in the face and keep on walking. Reaganites like to point to his 1976 run for the presidency, when he came within an inch of unseating Jerry Ford. When Reagan lost, he gave a valiant speech to his followers in which he spoke of the cause and signaled that he'd be back.

But I like to remember this: Reagan played Vegas. In 1954, when demand for his acting services was slowing, Reagan emceed a variety act to make money and keep his name in the air. He didn't like doing it. But it was what he had to do, so he did it. The point is he knew what it was to be through, to have people not answer your calls. When I thought about this time in his life once, I thought, All the great ones have known failure, but only the greatest of the great use it. He always used his. It deepened him and sharpened him.

What was it that made him great? You can argue that great moments call forth great leaders, that the '20s brought forth a Harding, but the dramatic and demanding '30s and '80s summoned an F.D.R. and a Reagan. In Reagan's case, there was also something else. It was that he didn't become President to reach some egocentric sense of personal destiny; he didn't need the presidency, and he didn't go for it because of some strange vanity, some weird desire to be loved or a need of power to fill the empty spaces within. He didn't want the presidency in order to be a big man. He wanted the presidency so that he could do big things.

I think as we look back we will see him as the last gentleman of American politics. He was as courtly and well mannered as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are not. He was a person of dignity and weight, warmth and wit. The English say a gentleman is one who never insults another by accident, but Reagan took it a step further: he wouldn't insult another on purpose.

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