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GP15Jun04: Irishmen Who Married Up

Unremarkable Remarks.  All last week we took in the long good bye to Ronald Reagan.  The tributes to this remarkable man were strikingly unremarkable. 

It’s not surprising that the living have not captured him well.  In the movies and in politics, he got “B” assignments and his genial acting did not rise to Shakespearean heights.  The plain truth is that he was many times greater than the roles he played or the way he played them.  This made him elusive or even remote, as some have mentioned.   In this age, men of greatness are elusive, their facades serving as armor that protects their souls from the familiarities and banality of modern life. 

All in All.  Back in January 11, 1989, in a farewell address, he did his own obituary.  He  summed up both his life and his tenure in office better than those who did sketches of him later: 

“We made a difference.  We made the city stronger.  We made the city freer, and left her in good hands.  All in all, not bad, not bad at all.” 

Tear Down This Wall, Mr. Gorbachev.  The great Reagan accomplishment was tearing up the Soviet Union, then captained by Premier Gorbachev, all of which eventually led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  His arms race with the Soviets broke their system, and broke our own treasury as well.   

Now, as a result, both Russia and the United States are no longer at each other’s throats, and both, for good and bad, are immensely less powerful on the world stage than they were before.  In opposition to one another, they dominated everything.  Today, as sometime allies, they have to stiffen their upper lips when one-time satellites, turning up their noses, give each of them the snub.  Gorbachev was at the funeral, and we wish he had been invited to speak, since he was the co-actor in Reagan’s greatest moment. 

Conservative Revolution.  Domestically, Reagan, like Bush II, massively spent money he did not have in his coffers, something he had learned as Governor of California.  Long term, this did not do much for the U.S. economy except to weaken the sinews of the existing economic system and prepare for a new economic order which is still taking shape in 2004.  His spendthrift ways became a ball and chain with which he cheerfully smashed the house of government.  Dare we call him a genial rebel.  

Ironically, his quiet revolution that has overturned our mass production machine required a spending splurge engineered by conservative Republicans, rather than pork barrel Democrats.  Now, for better or worse, we are tethered to a global economic engine, all of our businesses very much more global.  In this way, almost unintentionally, Reagan undermined the Ancien Regime, that something we call the Establishment.  It’s little recognized but Reagan tore apart two systems—U.S. and Russian—during his tenure.  We had a conservative revolution here, probably the only kind of revolution that will ever take place on America’s shores. 

Marrying Up.  Reagan had a fantastic talent for friendship that encompassed political opponents such as Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House during his administration.  Clearly a friend, Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister Emeritus of Canada, gave the best eulogy at the National Cathedral last week.  Mulroney remembered how, as he and Reagan stood in an Ottawa hangar in 1987 waiting to be joined by Nancy and Mila Mulroney, Reagan quipped:  “You know, Brian, for two Irishmen we sure married up.”  Such Irishmen form lasting bonds and tipple drinks with one and all. 

Kindly Acts.  For sure what made all his friendships possible was Reagan’s kindly disposition.  Amidst all the fanfare last week, what shines most are his simple acts. Recalled is a special letter written upon the birth of a child to a former social secretary.  Warm correspondence and conversations with a single mother from Iowa who had initially written to the White House to complain to and about the Reagans.  A meeting with journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff in September 1981 because of the birth of their first child.  (See The Wall Street Journal, June 10,2004, p. A13).  Every day we learn of yet more acts of thoughtfulness on his part, which we take to be the moments that really defined him.  Some pundits say that Reagan never got into details:  we think he just paid attention to personal details that are too often neglected by others.  His civility has not survived him.    

Not a Reaganite.  He was surrounded by a lot of ideologues who were sure they knew what he stood for.  Quite often they were dead wrong.  Just last week one of his ex-Cabinet secretaries railed at length in a national newspaper about the Reagan position on a contentious social issue.  Of course, we know, in fact, that Reagan and his wife simply did not care one way or another about the issue in question. 

A speechwriter in the White House once overheard Reagan muttering something to the effect of, “Well, I don’t know what we are.  But we sure are not Reaganites.” 

Eulogies and Obituaries.  Though the Reagan commentary last week missed him by a mile, we should not assume that obits, in general, are getting worse.  They’re getting better and are seen in more and more print publications.  The Economist, for instance, has added its “death of the week” over the last couple of years at the back of the book.  The English newspapers have gotten particularly good at sending people off to their Maker, and we always read them when we want a brown study and full account of a world figure that has verve and the telling detail. 

It’s natural that the obit business is growing.  The populations of all the developed nations are growing older and infirm.  We are going to be seeing more and more old friends to the door.  We might as well get good at it. 

Obit journalists now have regular get-togethers and a website.  See www.obitpage.com.  This year they met at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico from June 3 to 5.  It’s an other-worldly place in an extraterrestrial state.  Sounds like just the right gathering spot for a clan that writes about the dearly departed. 

Newspapers and the major TV networks enjoy competitive advantages in obit journalism.  They can do it better than other media, and can inflate their numbers with such coverage.  We can see all the attention the Reagan ceremonies brought them.  They should exploit this niche, making hay from our grim demographics. 

Another Irishman.  Ronald Reagan was a man greater than his parts, who married up.  We feel the same way about Tom Canning, late of Sea Cliff, another Irishman who had the fun about him.  Since good eulogies are hard to find, we include an excellent one from his son Tom Jr., who celebrated well his pun-loving, martini-drinking dad at a send off last year.  See our Poetry and Business section to read more.

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