Craig Shirley’s Last Act is the important final chapter in the life of Reagan that no one has thus far covered. It’s the kind of book that widens our understanding of American history and of the presidency and the men who occupied it. To tell Reagan’s story, Craig has secured the complete, exclusive, and enthusiastic support of the Reagan Foundation and Library and spent considerable time there reviewing sealed files and confidential information.
Cast in a grand and compelling narrative style, Last Act contains interesting and heretofore untold anecdotes about Reagan, Mrs. Reagan, their pleasure at retirement, the onslaught of the awful Alzheimer’s and how he and Mrs. Reagan dealt with the diagnosis, the slow demise, the extensive plans for a state funeral, the outpouring from the nation, which stunned the political establishment, the Reagan legacy, and how his shadow looms more and more over the Republican Party, Washington, the culture of America, and the world.
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The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan
By Craig Shirley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Craig Shirley
All rights reserved.
"Even though the day must ultimately come, it will be hard to say goodbye."
For years Jim Hooley had been dreading the phone call, even though he knew it was inevitable that Ronald Reagan, the man to whom he'd devoted much of his life, was going to die.
Days were now down to hours and maybe even minutes.
It was early June 2004 and the private word from California about President Reagan's condition was getting steadily worse. No one who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's ever got better. People frequently recovered from surgeries and cancers and broken bones. But no one ever got better who was diagnosed with the horrible disease — about which so little was understood — that ravages and ultimately does fatal damage to the brain and the body.
Hooley and other key Reaganites had already had one false alarm just a week earlier, getting an urgent phone call from the president's chief of staff, Joanne Drake, telling him Reagan's time was nigh and he'd better get on the next plane. Reagan, according to sources, had been unconscious for a week.
But then the ninety-three-year-old Gipper rallied, as if pushing back against death, as he'd pushed back his whole life: against Eureka College administrators who wanted to fire professors during the Great Depression; against Hollywood moguls who refused to share residual profits with actors and actresses; against political opponents, both Republican and Democratic; against the entrenched Washington bureaucracy; against dictators who ran Evil Empires.
Just a few days earlier, on Memorial Day weekend, Robert Higdon received a call from Nancy Reagan. "I just wanted to call and tell you, you need to get ready." He pulled the car over to the side of the road to give Nancy his undivided attention. "As in?" he gravely replied. "The doctor's just here and he said we need to get ready ... I think by the end of the week," she said. Higdon was a family friend who'd been asked to help raise money to get the presidential library off the ground many years earlier.
One week later — on June 4 — Drake called Hooley again and said, "Things are looking close."
Those involved in the planning of the Reagan funeral — Fred Ryan, Joanne Drake, Higdon, Rick Ahearn, Hooley — had been on call for years. As a longtime advance man for Reagan, Hooley — and many others — had to make sure the rites came off without a hitch. There were thousands of moving parts involved. Ryan, Drake, and Higdon had been personally close to the Reagans for many years and knew how many friends and associates and admirers and detractors and critics and enemies they'd picked up over the years.
The logistics for the movement of a president were difficult enough, but for the funeral of a president they were mind numbing. Imagine every ego in Washington jammed into a small animal cage, each armed with a sharp knife, an American Express card, and battery acid.
Reagan had always believed he was the master of his own fate but also, as a man of God, believed in divine destiny. Reagan used the phrase "Man with God" because he believed he, like all people, was made in the image of his Creator. But he also embraced Immanuel Kant's rational being because God wanted man to be a rational being. He was going to go when God called him but not one minute sooner.
The disease was named after Alois Alzheimer, the Bavarian German scientist who'd first undertaken the use of high-performance microscopes to study brain tissue nearly a century earlier while searching for the causes of dementia. According to How We Die, "The fundamental pathology of Alzheimer's disease is the progressive degeneration and loss of vast numbers of nerve cells in those portions of the brain's cortex that are associated with the so-called higher functions, such as memory, learning and judgment."
Twenty-one years earlier — in the fall of 1983 — President Reagan designated November as "National Alzheimer's Disease Month." This was just as nationwide attention was slowly beginning to awaken and become more familiar with the affliction. He himself went through the seven stages as defined by the Alzheimer's Association, from Step One "no impairment" to Step Seven "very severe decline." Still, the fact that it took ten years was a testament to his physical endurance and capacity. Lou Cannon noted that Reagan was very proud of the weight room that he'd installed in the White House after the shooting and that did much to help him recover, "but, there's a price that he paid. If he hadn't been a healthy man, he probably wouldn't have lived all those years." Many Alzheimer's patients — such as his old friend Jeane Kirkpatrick — went very quickly, in a matter of months or a few years.
For months, Hooley had had a suitcase packed and waiting by the door for the phone call, so he would be ready to head out to Andrews Air Force Base and go west to perform one more task for his beloved old boss. Still, no one could accurately forecast how long Reagan would live. "It could be weeks, it could be months," said one individual with knowledge but unidentified to the Associated Press. That same day, however, the wire service had already moved several stories on Reagan's sudden decline but again without attribution and few details.
Also on June 5, President George W. Bush — "43" — was in Europe and while there met with the ailing Pope John Paul 11, who gave Bush an earful about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Vatican had opposed. Thousands were protesting Bush as he moved around the continent. "There is a lot of hatred of Bush in France, real hatred," said an aide to French president Jacques Chirac. Protesters burned American flags and carried Palestinian flags and signs denouncing Bush as a terrorist. Simultaneously, anti-Bush protests were underway in Lafayette Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
The mood of the American people was guarded and somewhat demoralized. The terrible events of September 11, 2001, still hung over the country as the War on Terror continued unabated. Some felt that Bush had made a mistake in praising Islam too effusively and too often, as it muddled the picture as to who the enemy was.
On the other hand, the French had routinely denounced American presidents with the only exception being JFK and that was in part because his wife Jackie was of French descent and she spoke the language fluently. Dwight Eisenhower got rough treatment from the French even though he'd led the D-day invasion that liberated their country from the Nazis and the Nazi accomplices in the Pétain Vichy government exactly sixty years earlier. While a former president lay dying and the current president was in Europe, the news of the world continued.
In secret at a hotel in New Jersey, Department of Justice officials gathered together the families of the victims of September 11, 2001, and played the recordings of the phone calls made from the planes to loved ones. This was the first time they'd been played for the survivors. More than a hundred attended the sad and horrible reliving and retelling of the new day of infamy.
O. J. Simpson sat down for an interview with the Associated Press and told the wire reporter he was no longer in the hunt for the real killers because of the pressures of being a single parent.
The lineup of the Washington insider Sunday shows was announced, and the usual suspects of insiders were expected to talk about the usual insider stuff, including fireworks at the CIA. The shows were routinely ignored by Middle America and Reagan had never paid them much mind, only mentioning them in passing in his diary, which spanned eight years in the White House.
The Peoria Journal Star was reporting that Governor Rod Blagojevich wanted to close the Pontiac prison because the inmate population had diminished.
In Washington, Vice President Richard Cheney was being questioned by investigators looking into the illegal leak of the name of a CIA operative to columnist Bob Novak. The investigation was centering on Karl Rove, Bush's political aide and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby of Cheney's staff.
Later, Cheney flew to Chicago for a fund-raising event for Jack Ryan, a handsome and successful banker who'd once been married to actress Jeri Ryan. They divorced in 1999. His Democratic opponent took the high road publicly saying the divorce was private and the records were private. Behind the scenes, however, his supporters were agitating hard for release of the records. Finally, in a bizarre decision worthy of the long history of corrupt judges in Chicago, it was ruled that the private agreement was somehow in the public interest, and the private agreement by two private individuals was unsealed and splayed all over the media.
In their divorce, Jeri Ryan had charged that her husband wanted to have sex with her in odd, public places but one was hard pressed to understand how this helped the electoral process or their young son. Ryan, trailing badly in the polls and humiliated, withdrew from the race, clearing the way for the election of his opponent, Barack Hussein Obama. Meanwhile, Obama's academic and medical records remained sealed and unquestioned by the ruling elites. Bush was facing a tough reelection, but the good news was the economy had added nearly 250,000 jobs in the month of May alone. Appearing at a recent book symposium, Al Gore's former campaign manager, Donna Brazile, trashed Reagan harshly, saying he had initiated "the politics of telling poor people they are worthless."
The National Spelling Bee was taking place in Washington with David Tidmarsh, an eighth grader from South Bend, Indiana, correctly spelling autochthonous. It meant "indigenous." For his fine efforts, winning out of nine million competitors, David won seventeen thousand dollars in prize money and other awards.
South Bend was the home of Notre Dame and the setting for the movie Knute Rockne, All American, in which a young actor portrayed star Fighting Irish fullback George Gipp. On his deathbed, he asked his coach, Rockne, "Sometime, when the team is up against it ... the breaks are beating the boys ... tell them to go out there with all they got ... win just one for the Gipper."
Now Reagan, at the last, was "up against it."
In the last three weeks and in the last stages of his own battle with Alzheimer's, Reagan's eyes had been closed. During ten years, the once inquisitive mind had been slowly shutting down one system after another, as the terrible disease did with all its victims. First, short-term memory; second, long-term memory; then, voluntary motor functions; and finally, as the brain dwindles, goes with it the involuntary heart and lungs and other organ functions.
The disease peeled away the essence of the person as one peels an onion. Layer by layer. Patti Davis, Reagan's pretty if also controversial daughter said it was like "plateauing." Later, Higdon received yet another call from Nancy. "The doctors are here, and I think you need to get everything ready."
Reagan, for his whole life, had been proud to share the "humble roots" of every other American and yet Reagan was also proud that he was singularly unique. As Leader of the Free World, Reagan was the irrepressible American Exceptionalist. He'd once been an inimitable and successful man and president and world trailblazer who, at the end, would die, just like every other man since the time of Adam.
No one, not even occupants of the Oval Office, escaped death.
Reagan had bounded out of the White House and Washington in January 1989 on a wave of good will, the affection of many of his countrymen, and an astonishing record of accomplishment. The country he'd inherited eight years earlier was broken and demoralized. The best days seemed in the past. A country that under Franklin Roosevelt had defeated the evil of Berlin and Tokyo — which in turn under Harry Truman rebuilt a war-torn European continent, created the United Nations, and asked nothing from those countries except some land on which to bury her dead — was a thing of the past.
A nation that became second to none in war and peace, hurled rockets into the depths of the solar system, clothed and fed the poor of the world, provided superb free education to all children, denied opportunity to none, had the strength to admit wrongness and the integrity to throw crooked politicians out of office, had been brought low by unpopular foreign adventures, internal discord, centralized corruption, ill-mannered progressivism, the soullessness and depravity of the Flower Children and anti-war movements, and the radical chic of the 1960s. The traditions of reliance on faith and family had been pulled down, but ironically, as one political philosophy argued for more concentrations of power in the nation's capital, it simply led to more dismay and skepticism about Washington, especially with leaders who were "lost in power," as Bill Buckley said.
In 1980, America was losing a Cold War, the American economy was in tatters, and the American spirit was all but snuffed out. Cynicism was the celebrated disposition and Jacobinism their warming fire.
Eight years later, that country was winning the Cold War, while a humiliated and discredited Moscow was on its knees, suing for peace. Reagan believed that America operated on a higher moral plane than any other country in history, and he approached the presidency in that fashion. Like all Americans, he rejected monarchy, he rejected empire, he rejected High Toryism and neo-conservatism, and he approached the job with reverence and humility and a fundamental belief in the individual. He knew that if the American defense was to be raised, he first had to raise the American economy, and to do that he had to raise America's morale and spirituality. In his overlooked 1980 election eve address, he spoke of his goal to "revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood."
The crippling double-digit inflation and interest rates that had decimated the economy and Americans' savings in the 1970s had been eradicated. When he left office, inflation was almost nonexistent and interest rates were at a supportable level. Gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. Unemployment in January 1989 was 5.4 percent, which some economists said was impossible. The debt was falling rapidly. The vitality of the economy had been restored, but only after Reagan had restored the citizenry's belief in itself.
Polls across the board showed broad approval for Reagan and not just from his base, but historic highs from young voters and from African Americans. Americans finally thought their country was on the right track. He'd left his party with a coherent governing philosophy, his country freer, and the world safer. The U.S. economy, between 1975 and 2000, expanded 128 percent, most of it coming in the Reagan years and in the Reagan-inspired years when the Republicans wrested control of Congress in 1994, led by a young Reaganite, Newt Gingrich.
John O'Sullivan, editor of the National Review, said that the "fact of America" would survive, but Ronald Reagan had restored the "idea of America." Reagan himself stuck his chest out a bit and said toward the end of his presidency, "The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I'm proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created — and filled — 19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery ofour morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership." For romantic Americans their shining country was shining again. For Reagan, he left office more popular than when he was sworn in — unlike Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Truman. Only Ike could make the same claim.
Excerpted from Last Act by Craig Shirley. Copyright © 2015 Craig Shirley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: "Ronald Reagan, the People's Choice" Lou Cannon xiii
Preface: A Tide in the Affairs of Men xvii
Chapter 1 Mortal Coil 1
Chapter 2 The Death of the Hired Man 31
Chapter 3 To Bury Reagan 71
Chapter 4 Rough Requiem 105
Chapter 5 A Ranch in the Sky 139
Chapter 6 Hoi Polloi v. Hoity-Toity 171
Chapter 7 Assault on Jenkins Hill 201
Chapter 8 Do We Not Hear the Chimes at Midday? 231
Chapter 9 "Signal: Rawhide's Last Arrival" 267
Chapter 10 A Prayer in Spring 299
Author's Note 309
About the Author 407