When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reaganby Peggy Noonan
No one has ever captured Ronald Reagan like Peggy Noonan. In When Character Was King, Noonan brings her own reflections on Reagan to bear as well as new stories—from Presidents George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, his Secret Service men and White House colleagues, his wife, his daughter Patti Davis, and his close friends—to reveal the true nature of a man even his opponents now view as a maker of big history. Marked by incisive wit and elegant prose, When Character Was King will both enlighten and move readers. It may well be the last word on Ronald Reagan, not only as a leader but as a man.
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Read an Excerpt
"I Remember You"
It was like the last gathering of the clans, the reunion of five hundred friends, cabinet secretaries, aides, staffers, clique, tong and cabal members and appointees of Ronald Wilson Reagan, fortieth president of the United States, in Williamsburg, Virginia, on March 3, 2001. It was the biggest coming together of the Reagan hands since the day he left office, in January of 1989.
The big room in the Kingsmill Resort rocked with greeting. "I don't beleeeve it," "Great to seeeee you," "Where you hangin' your hat, where you causin' trouble?"
People with young eyes, lifted eyes, crinkled eyes from being in the sun; people with strollers, with walkers ...
That guy over therethat young kid from what, OMB? I used to see him in the tall cool halls of the Old Executive Office Building. Now he's married, with a baby who, from the look of things, is teething, in full red-gummed wail. I get some ice chips for the baby to suck on, return and say hello to the parents. Yes, it was OMB, the young father says, yes, down the hall and up a flight. "Those were great days." He smiles.
Across the room I see a once-young advance man who now walks with a cane. And Tom Dawson, one of the famous Mice, the young aides to Don Regan whom we always saw as nibbling away at good work. He looked exactly like Tom Dawson, with all of his hair, only now what was black is gray. He looks like a photo negative of Tom Dawson.
I turn and see Don Regan himself, the Chief, the controversial former chief of staff. He still looks like George Raft, he is still in a sharp gray suit, and at the sight of him I laugh. He sees me and does the same.
"I'm an artist!" he booms as we hug.
"Did you know I paint?" he demands. "I have pictures in museums! Started after I left. They didn't teach me to paint in the marines or at Merrill Lynch or in the White House, I can tell you that!"
There's Ed Meese, with his soft pink face and soft white hair. George Shultz once said he reminded him of a jolly St. Patrick, and that is how Meese looks to me now, chuckling and patting people's arms. He was under bad pressure once, the focus of charges, but now it's almost twenty years since those days and he looks like he's found what everyone wants: happiness. He looks happy.
I stand and survey the room. Carl Anderson, who worked on domestic policy, now head of the Knights of Columbus of America, is talking to Becky Norton Dunlop, formerly of presidential personnel. I used to hide from her. I had come into the White House without having been politically vetted, was not a registered Republican, had no party backgroundonly conservative beliefs. They snuck me in and hid me from her. By the time we met I'd been there awhile. We became colleagues, then allies, then friends.
There's Kathy Osborne, Ronald Reagan's personal secretary, and Elaine Crispin, who worked for Nancy. She's slim, bubbly, unchanged save in one respect"Elaine Crispin Sawyer," she says. "He changed my name!" The gray-haired man beside her beams.
Over there Judge William Clark is nodding at someone who's looking up at him and making a point. And Peter Robinson of the speechwriting staff, who was there to fight for the words "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The State Department had scorned the demand as provocative, and Peter had waged a battle. Ronald Reagan fired the final shot: Of course I will say it, I mean to provoke.
"This is the inaugural party," someone in a cluster says. The gathering of the clans we would have had a few weeks ago if we'd all been in Washington when the eldest son of the man Ronald Reagan picked as his vice president was sworn in as the forty-third president of the United States. We forget how crucial that decision was, not only for immediate political prospects in 1980 but also for the generation that would follow. The new Bush would not be here if it had not been for the old one, who would not have been there if he hadn't been chosen in 1980 when the nominee was tired and the talks with Gerald Ford had collapsed and there was no other obvious choice. Reagan had not held Bush in the highest regard in those days, thought him weak from the famous "I'm paying for this microphone!" fracas in New Hampshire. But Reagan came to like him, to respect him. Now Bush's son was president and acting in a way that suggested that for a dozen years he'd watched both Reagan and his father up close in that old house, and had learned from the former what to do and from the latter what not. Well, not exactly, but close. At any rate, the old Reaganites viewed the new Bush with hopeful regard: good man, seems tough enough, but let's watch him on tax rates. In public they are respectful of Dubya, in private merrily irreverent. They send each other e-mails. "What was Bush's answer to the question 'How do you feel about Roe v. Wade?' 'Ah think it was the most important decision George Washington made when he crossed the Delaware.'"
Here is Jim Brady, in a wheelchair with an assistant, a nurse, a young Filipino woman who stands behind his chair holding the handles.
He is surrounded by well-wishers and poses for pictures. I say hello, introduce myself when he doesn't know me. He says, "Of course," and tells me ever since he was shot he suffers from CRS.
"What is that, Jim?"
"Can't Remember Shit."
We laugh, and I tell him there's a lot of that going around.
People kneel in front of him and look up at his face, or bend down to pat his arm. They feel an awkward tenderness. The thick lines of scar tissue are visible on his head and will be for the rest of his life, as they have been since the day twenty years before when the young man with the gun left him lying on the pavement, a thick scarlet stain pooling under his head.
"How is Sarah?" I ask.
"Not well," he says, and his eyes fill with tears. He began to weep and I stood there with my hand on his arm, his attendant staring straight ahead, as if she has seen this scene before. A few weeks later I was watching TV when Sarah Brady came on Larry King to tell of her struggle with lung cancer.
Nancy Reagan moves through the room, the center of a dense moving cluster. She's smiling the public smile that has become her private smile, shaking hands, kissing, greeting children, saying, "Of course I remember you." Still so small, size two, five feet two inches. In a pretty bright dress and black pumps. She is the same but older, of course, eighty now and frail, delicate as bird bones.
She has not always enjoyed big gatherings of her husband's supporters but she does this night. Later she would tell me, with the excitement of a girl, "I saw Rex Scouten! He's such a lovely man."
Rex Scouten, the head usher of the White House in the days of Reagan, whom she hadn't seen since the day she left, and who had been standing with her in the solarium in the residence the day the head of her Secret Service detail came and told her shots had been fired at the president.
She saw Don Regan too. He, of course, had bitterly left his chief-of-staff position in the White House after Nancy, and others, had moved against him in the wake of Iran-contra. He took revenge in a best-seller that charged she'd driven him mad with her belief in astrology and her insistence on delaying presidential trips until the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars. I'd never known of any of that back then, when I was a speechwriter for the president, but I believed it when I read it. The assassination attempt had turned a fretful nature fearful; she'd worried constantly about her husband's safety, and if the advice of astrologers offered solace she would have listened.
But you know what Nancy Reagan did when she saw Don Regan? She laughed and hugged him, and he laughed and hugged her back. "I'm an artist!" he told her too, and she asked him what he painted.
"I paint oils, landscapes!" (He's eighty-two years old and he still talks like Willy Loman's brother in Death of a Salesman: Africa! Diamonds big as stars!)
Nancy said she'd love to see them, spoke to Ann, his wife, wheelchair bound, observing life now from the middle of people and always looking up.
Later Nancy would muse to a friend, "I never would have associated Don with painting!" They laughed, but with pleasure. Isn't life full of surprises?
It was all so warm, and everyone seemed generous and kind. It was just like the old days, except that's not how the old days were.
* * *
The new captain of the Ronald Reagan, Captain Bill Goodwin, stands at a little stage on the side of the room and speaks of the reason for our coming together. We are gathered to go, en masse, tomorrow, to the Newport News Shipyards to witness and celebrate the christening of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, CVN 76, Nimitz class. Nancy Reagan will swing the bottle to the bow.
The skipper tells us it is the honor of his twenty-five-year career to be the first commanding officer of the Reagan, that the ship is coming to life, 60 percent finished. "A ship with a crew is a living, breathing thing," he says. "Tomorrow if you see our sailors, they are the lifeblood. The average age of a sailor on our flight deck is nineteen years old.... If you see them tomorrow, shake their hands."
Nineteen years old. If the old Reagan was here, the one who isn't sick, he'd think: "They were born in 1982, when we were trying to rebuild the national defense, when we were going for the six-hundredship navy. They were babies, and now look. Isn't that something?"
The ship's logo, the captain tells us, has four stars for the "four pillars of freedomliberty, opportunity, global democracy and national pride." Below the stars the ship will bear a motto. "It's one some of you will recognize," he says. "It says, Peace Through Strength."
This is greeted, as you might expect, with hearty cheers. Reagan's foreign policy, boiled down to three words.
Later the captain tells me that he was on the Indian Ocean, a flight instructor on the USS Eisenhower the day Ronald Reagan walked into the White House. "We were waiting for the [Iranian] hostages to come home." Those were bad days for the military, he says, and his plan was to get his golden wings and then go fly for Delta. But when Reagan came in, things got better, and he decided to make a career of the navy. "I'm a product of the Reagan administration," he said.
The evening ends with a small dinner. At just after eight, in a pretty room with a big stone fireplace at the Kingsmill, a fork hit a crystal glass and a throat was cleared.
This was a smaller group of the old friends and heirs and widows of the original kitchen cabinet, the small group of millionaires, businessmen and freelance philosophers that had come together in the early sixties and knocked on Ronald Reagan's door. You must run for office, they had told him.
Mrs. Earle Jorgensen is hereMarion Jorgensen, ninety-three years old, powdered like a sweet cake, in a flowered dress. "She had the most beautiful jewels of any woman in America," a friend breathes as we stand together on the side. "She was a beautiful woman," says another. Her late husband had been key in helping to support Reagan's early political career. And here is Bob Tuttle, son of Holmes, who had also been one of the founding group.
Everyone looks handsome, elegant in the candlelight. Most of them, not all, are old. They were there at the beginning. They were in history with him, and helped him be what he was.
Nancy had retired early but Betsy Bloomingdale is anchoring a table. A friend of the Reagans for almost forty years, she still sees Nancy almost every week. Imperial, saucy, with champagne-colored hair, she stands chuckling with a friend. Carol and Paul Laxalt are there, Paul the former governor of Nevada who became the close friend of Governor Reagan of California, and who then went to the Senate, where he supported his friend who was then president. Charles and Mary Jane Wick, again kitchen cabineters, both close and longtime Reagan friends.
And some nonpioneers, Buffy and Bill Cafritz for instance, down from Washington. They are a good and needed thing in our capital, bipartisanly friendly and implicitly supportive of whoever is president and first lady. You might call this fiercely practical, and it is. But it's also true that not everyone could do it, and there is a benefit to what they do not only for Washington but also, in a way, for the republic itself. For when a new president, some fellow from a peanut farm in Plains or a state house in Little Rock or the rarefied but still parochial palisades of the Pacific, lands in Washington, he needs an establishment to meet him and invite him in, to greet him and say we hope you have a good time here. Whoever comes to power, Bully, Bill and a handful of othersKay Graham was onebring to them the welcoming (though not uncritical and not unobservant) embrace of The Permanent Washington, as if there were such a place. But in a way there is, and if you're from Plains or Sacramento or Hot Springs or wherever, you're sure there is.
* * *
Robert Higdon, a Washington figure and close friend of the Reagans, and our host, raises his glass with a toast. "To the great class of 1989," he says, referring to the year Reagan left the presidency. "And a toast to our friend Ronald Reagan, who will always be our president."
Oatsie Charles, formidable and witty, a voice of the old Washington and friend of the great, formerly great and never will be great but what the heck, stands.
"I just want you to know I'm absolutely enchanted"
"Louder," yells a man.
"Shut up," she replies, to laughter.
"enchanted to be here tonight, the only Democrat."
"Curiously enough, the first moment I ever saw Nancy Reagan, whom I refer to as Beauty because I feel she is just as beautiful outside as she is inside, from the first moment I always felt immediately at home." She said that is how she feels tonight. She added that while you want to be friends with the Democrats, you want to party with the Republicans, which made everyone applaud.
The next morning half a dozen buses stood outside the hotel to take us to the shipyards, and as we stood in line to board I found myself standing next to Charlie Wick, head of the United States Information Agency in both Reagan administrations. I had thought of him once, when I first saw him almost twenty years ago, as fierce and glowering. But I don't know that's what he was, and it's not what he seems now. Maybe I was wrong; maybe he's changed. It seems to me age can make people softer inside just as it makes your skin softeras if the soft pliant skin on the outside is a physical expression of a new give inside, in the personality. You get to a certain age and get dressed for the party and you really just want to laugh and be good to people, be nice to them. The urgencies of yesterday have fallen away, the demand for this or that concrete objective evaporates, and what is left is the most patient and well-meaning you.
Charlie and I make some stupid joke and then for no reason I can remember I begin to sing an old song, softly. He joins in, and we are standing in the lobby crooning, "I Remember You." You're the one who made my dreams come true/Yes you did, many years ago ...
Forty minutes later we were at the shipyards and suddenly there she was, berthed on the James River, built by ten thousand hands. Massive and elegant, a great beauty jutting into the air, a big flat-topped ship painted the color of a hazy day at sea. More than a thousand feet long, with a displacement of almost a hundred thousand tons. And arching overhead, a huge thousand-ton crane that read NEWPORT NEWS SHIPBUILDING.
One after another we'd stop and stare as we walked to our seats. Big ships have such a dense presence and a massive silence.
There was bunting on the port bow, a string of American flags trailing down from the bull nose to a sign that said RONALD REAGAN, CVN 76. It seemed appropriate and yet cheesy, like sale day at Kresge's.
The U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet Band was playing the Sousa-like music you only hear at events like this and patriotic parades.
The day was sodden, freezing, overcast. We sat in steady rain in a field of folding chairs on a makeshift plywood platform, shivering in our boots in the early March cold. We wore little soggy ponchos that had been left on our seats, and it was so unrelentingly awful that there was a kind of delight in it. No one could look nice and so no one tried, and no one, therefore, was dignified.
There was some oratory, but not too much.
Virginia's new senator, George Allen, quoted Reagan: "'History comes and history goes, but principles endure, and ensure future generations will defend liberty not as a gift from government but as a blessing from our Creator....'" Admiral Vern Clark said the United States has named a number of aircraft carriers after former presidentsthe George Washington, the Abraham Lincoln, the Theodore Roosevelt, the Harry S. Truman, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, the John F. Kennedy. "Ronald Reagan's name stands for freedom," he said. "As it has been with his name, so also will it be with this ship."
Senator John Warner of Virginia called the ship "an island of democracy sailing the seas," and said it was fitting that the most recently commissioned aircraft carrier before this was the Harry S. Truman. "For these two presidents, Truman and Reagan, will always be remembered for standing firm against the spread of communism."
The new secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, quoted Reagan's farewell speech when he left the presidency. "(A)s he reflected on his years in the White House, he recalled an incident from the 1980s when the aircraft carrier Midway was patrolling in the South China Sea. It came across a leaky little boat crammed with refugees from Indochina. And as the refugees made their way through the choppy seas one spied a sailor way up on the deck of the carrier. And he called out, 'Hello American sailor. Hello Freedom Man.' What President Reagan called that 'small moment with a big meaning' captured what America symbolized.... And today we stand in the shadow of another big ship, to reaffirm that shining spirit."
It was all fine, all appropriate, but everyone was waiting for the new president, George W. Bush, to speak. In the holding room just before the speeches the Bushes had met Mrs. Reagan and been solicitous. They don't know each other well, had really only been people who stood together at great occasions in years past. It was the first time they'd seen each other since Ron Reagan, Nancy's son, had said in an interview during the election that Mr. Bush's only accomplishment in life had been that he'd stopped being a drunk. Nancy had been mortified, and had called Barbara Bush to apologize. Mrs. Bush had laughed and said, "Oh Nancy, don't give it a thought, we can't control our children."
President Bush asked how the former president was, and how Nancy was holding up. It is a struggle to live with those who suffer from Alzheimer's, an added struggle if you are old yourself and have them at home. "It's hard," Mrs. Reagan said. "Thank you for asking, it's hard." And then she changed the subject.
"Please tell me," she said to Laura Bush, "that all those modern sculptures are gone." The recently departed president and first lady had placed some modern sculptures in the gardens and throughout the house; Nancy Reagan had thought them heavy, discordant. "You have to play to the architecture of the House," she had worried to a friend.
"They're gone," said Laura Bush softly, smiling.
"And in the first lady's garden?"
"They're gone," Mrs. Bush assured her.
Mrs. Reagan smiled. She was relieved. She loved the old mansion, had been alarmed at the inclusion of art that seemed at odds with its spirit.
There was enthusiastic applause as the president now stood and walked to the podium. He was still new at these things, awkward and full of shrugs, but friendly and unpretentious. He wore a dark overcoat and had come in holding the hand of his wife, whose pleasant, inexpressive smile seemed today, as always, to mask more than it reveals.
When the applause died down Bush said he was proud to attend the christening of "the newest ship of the greatest navy in the world." He said that it is certain the Reagan "will sail tall and strong, like the man we have known.... We live in a world shaped in so many ways by his will and heart. As president, Ronald Reagan believed without question that tyranny is temporary, and the hope of freedom is universal and permanent; that our nation has unique goodness, and must remain uniquely strong; that God takes the side of justice, because all our rights are His own gifts.... Some achievements fade with the years. Ronald Reagan's achievements grow larger with the passing of time.
"What he wanted, what he fought for, was a stronger nation in a more peaceful world.... The values that Ronald Reagan brought to America's conduct in the world will not change.
"So as we dedicate this ship, I want to rededicate American policy to Ronald Reagan's vision of optimism, modesty and results. Ronald Reagan's optimism defined his character, and it defined his presidency. More than a habit of mind, this optimism sprang from deep confidence in the power and the future of American ideals. Great democracies, he believed, are built on a strong foundation of consent.... Any government built on oppression is built on sand....
"We will stand by those nations moving toward freedomwe will stand up to those nations who deny freedom ... and we will assert emphatically that the future will belong to the free...."
Bush said that twenty years ago Ronald Reagan had visited the USS Constellation and told the sailors there that America was grateful to them. In two years, Bush said, the Reagan would actually replace the Constellation. But the Reagan is a very different ship.
"The island on the Reagan's main deck is almost the same height as that of its predecessors, but it has one less level. The empty space will be filled with cables that will tie the ship into a vast network that connects information and weapons in new ways. This will revolutionize the navy's ability to project American power over land and sea ... wherever our vital interests are threatened...."
The new president said the revolution in technology will change the face of war itself. "Today the Ronald Reagan begins its journey into the bright and peaceful dawn that President Reagan helped to bring. All of us here wish the ship Ronald Reagan Godspeed, as we wish Ronald Reagan God's blessings."
He had used the ceremony to take Reagan's stands on military strength and reclaim them, as he had during the campaign, as his own. He used the day not to assert military impregnability but to call for a continued commitment of resources.
Excerpted from When Character Was King by PEGGY NOONAN. Copyright © 2001 by Peggy Noonan. Excerpted by permission.
Meet the Author
Peggy Noonan’s New York Times bestselling books include When Character Was King and What I Saw at the Revolution. She is a columnist and contributing editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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