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Ronald Reagan Remembered with DVD
By CBS News
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 CBS News
All right reserved.
by Dan Rather
Though the twenty-first century is not yet a decade old, the twentieth century already seems a distant memory. Because of this sense of remove, we may now be able to appreciate, in a way that we could not at the end of his second term, just how completely Ronald Reagan embodied what is called "the American century." Born in 1911, he held memories that few alive today can claim. The small-town America about which President Reagan would often wax nostalgic was not a rhetorical fabrication; it was the reality that young Ronald Reagan knew as a boy. He came of age during the Great Depression and served with the Army Air Force Motion Picture Unit during World War II. He acted on the silver screen during Hollywood's golden age. Amid the strife of the 1960s, he was the governor of California known for locking horns with antiwar protestors.
Ronald Reagan was a man who was fully a part of the era in which he lived, an era that left an indelible stamp on the American culture and psyche. By the time Reagan was elected president, his understanding of this country and its major currents of thought and feeling was innate. Even if one discounts all his considerable rhetorical skill, President Reagan did not have to reach to connect with his fellow Americans: if the times really do make the man, President Reagan was as American as they come.
This quality may well have been at the heart of President Reagan's political success, the substance that informed his considerable blessings of easy communication. Many have called President Reagan the Great Communicator, and the label sometimes grates on his partisans, who see in it a reluctance to credit the Reagan ideology. But to Reagan detractors and defenders alike, one might ask: Just what is leadership, in a democracy, but the harnessing of policy to the horse of persuasion? In a successful presidency, these realms are inseparable, and this was something that President Reagan always seemed to grasp.
In the public role of the presidency, Ronald Reagan knew how to personify the American spirit of the times, and reflect it back to an American public that generally liked what it saw. He spoke to an elevated sense of the American self, and he did so convincingly, in language that carried neither a self-conscious populist pose nor a high academic gloss. To recall President Reagan's speeches -- his first inaugural, his eulogizing of the Challenger crew, his farewell address -- is to remember a time not so long ago when words still reached out to the American imagination. Today's focus group-tested soundbites pale by comparison.
For many Americans, for many Republicans and Democrats alike, Ronald Reagan holds a privileged place in America's recent historical landscape. And in this presidential election year, no sooner had President Reagan left us than each major-party candidate sought to lay claim to his legacy: one through ideological and policy affinities, the other on the issue of federal funding for stem-cell research for treating Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.
On June 11, 2004, as the sun set over the American continent, a nation said its last good-byes to Ronald Wilson Reagan, fortieth president of the United States. On a California hillside facing the Pacific Ocean, a site rich in symbolism for a onetime movie star and two-term governor of the Golden State, President Reagan's remarkable journey came to its end, with history trailing in its wake.
In the preceding days, America had witnessed a state funeral in the nation's capital, a rite this country had not seen in a generation. As the caisson bearing President Reagan's casket made its way past the many thousands who lined Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, a certain air of triumph mingled with the solemnity of the occasion. As President Bush would say in the eulogy he delivered at the National Cathedral, America had lost Ronald Reagan only days before, but we had "missed him for a long time." Those who lined the streets had come not only to pay their respects but also to celebrate a life long lived, and one released at last from the terrible hold of Alzheimer's disease.
Those of us in the news media who had come to Washington to cover the funeral of a president tried, with the help of historians, biographers, and President Reagan's political contemporaries, to come to terms with his legacy. Much was said, of course, about Reagan's role in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Ubiquitous, too, was the word "optimism," used to describe the trait that, for so many, defined Reagan's personality and presidential vision. We heard about the Reagan wit and gift for oratory, and his easy way of connecting with his -- as we can still hear him say in that trademark, mellifluous voice -- "fellow Americans."
But it was an observation made by Edmund Morris, President Reagan's official biographer, that may have best made sense of Ronald Reagan the man and the president, and best encapsulated what he had meant to his country and to the world. Mr. Morris recalled that former French president Francois Mitterrand had once said, roughly translated, that Reagan "Truly had a notion of the state." Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who eulogized President Reagan, also picked up on Mitterrand's words, elaborating that Reagan understood "that there is a vast difference between the job of president and the role of president." The journalist Lou Cannon, who had covered the Reagan White House for The Washington Post, expressed a parallel thought: "The greatness of Reagan was not that he was in America, but that America was inside of him," he said, recasting something that Walter Lippmann had once said of Mitterrand's predecessor, de Gaulle.
Given the current international climate, it may seem odd verging on blasphemous to use one French leader or the words of another as a yardstick for evaluating one of our own. But in the post-World War II years, General de Gaulle was, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during the war, a man whose name had become virtually synonymous with that of his nation. In the 1980s, at the late height of the cold war, Ronald Reagan achieved a similar level of identification with the United States of America.
This was true for those who watched the United States from afar, from Western and Eastern Europe and from South America; and it was true, also, for political observers and everyday Americans here at home. It was true for those who admired President Reagan's willingness to confront the Soviet Union and it was true for those dismayed by his administration's interventions in Latin America. It was true for those who approved of the deregulation and tax-cutting that marked his economic policies, and it was true, too, for those who saw in the 1980s a decade of rapaciousness and greed. No matter where you stood, the nation and the time bore the unmistakable imprimatur of Ronald Reagan.
The public makes its opinions known instantly. American voters made their judgments on President Reagan known in the landslide election result of 1984, and the American heart did so again with a resounding outpouring upon Ronald Reagan's death earlier this year. History, however, is slower to register its verdicts. In these politically charged times, pundits and prognosticators of all stripes would have us believe that we can know how the future will treat our shared past, and that we can know it now. But real historians, schooled as they are in the shifting tides of fortune, tell us that true historical assessments can take generations to render.
In these pages and in the accompanying DVD, CBS News has brought together writings about and images of Ronald Reagan's life and presidency. This will by no means be the last word on President Reagan and on what he meant to the United States and the world, but it is meant to provide an enduring remembrance of an important American, of the times in which he lived and of the history he helped to shape. Here is a record of presidential triumphs and trials, of a public career that spanned much of the twentieth century. Here are pictures and events that you may remember well, or that the younger among you may be encountering for the first time.
From small-town Illinois to Hollywood, from the White House and, now, back to his beloved California, Ronald Wilson Reagan's journey was indeed remarkable, and uniquely American. We at CBS News hope that you will enjoy and learn from this collection of snapshots from the long road he traveled.
New York, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by CBS Worldwide Inc.
Excerpted from Ronald Reagan Remembered with DVD by CBS News Copyright © 2004 by CBS News. Excerpted by permission.
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