It is difficult to imagine Ronald Wilson Reagan having lived 90 years. Even when he became "the oldest man ever elected president" in 1980, his youthful exuberance about life and about America made him appear ageless. Now in the twilight of his life and, because of Alzheimer's disease, unable to appreciate all of the accolades that will justifiably be sent his way on his birthday Tuesday, it is good to remind ourselves how good we had it when Reagan was president.
People still debate his economic and other policies, but there can now be no question that his tax cuts helped fuel the economic engine that pulled our economy out of debt and recession and brought us the largest sustained economic prosperity in history. His fervent anti-communism contributed to the defeat of one of the great political pestilences of the 20th century. His commitment to individual liberty and freedom around the world was total.
"The Founding Fathers," he said nearly 40 years ago, "knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose." The question for Reagan was how much the government needed to do its limited work, not how much the people who made the money could be forced to pay.
Reagan was so different from the White House occupant of the recent past. His philosophy and life were not about grievance, guilt or entitlement. He promoted hope, opportunity and personal responsibility. Reagan saw his eight years in the White House as less about him and more about us. He didn't need the presidency to complete himself. He was complete when he came to the job and his greatest desire was to show his "fellow Americans" how to complete themselves through faith, hope, freedom and opportunity.
Reagan's stories were legion. Some of them may actually have been true, but most were told to make a point, like parables. They were illustrations that average people could understand. The stories touched something in our hearts and souls. They were intended to make us think noble thoughts and to take noble actions. Their heroes were intended to be role models for us. If they could do it - from Founding Fathers, to soldiers in battle - we could do it, too. The power to do good and to do well was in us, not government.
Even his digs could be wildly funny without devaluing his adversaries. In February 1988, after years of criticism about "Reaganomics," the president struck back with this classic line: "A friend of mine was invited to a costume party a short time ago. He slapped some egg on his face and went as a liberal economist."
How about this one on tax day, 1986: "Republicans believe that everyday is the Fourth of July, while Democrats wish every day was April 15."
Just recently, thanks to Nancy Reagan and others, we have discovered not only some beautifully crafted love letters from the president to his wife, but also hand-written radio commentaries from four decades ago. Those commentaries show a well-developed understanding of domestic and international issues, along with a philosophy and ideology to address them. Reagan is a modest man who never tooted his own horn.
It is too bad that Reagan is no longer aware of who he was and what he did for his beloved America. But many of the rest of us are aware and so will future generations be, if the truth is told to them.
Those of us who remember and are grateful for the man and his mission can reach out across the continent to his California home and symbolically touch that craggy, smiling and wonderful face and say, "Happy Birthday, President Reagan, and may God continue to hold you safely in the palm of his hand."
Tribune Media Services