On the World Stage, The White House's Best Actor
By Tom Shales
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page D01
He knew who he was, and he knew what he dreamed, and with skills that earned him the nickname The Great Communicator, he was able to make his dreams ours. Ronald Reagan tapped into the American consciousness as few other presidents or political leaders have ever done and did it with ingratiating charm and unpretentious sincerity.
We loved him like a father or a grandfather or an older brother or a next-door neighbor or a guy down the road who liked to ride his horse and chop wood and even enjoyed clearing brush off his land. The point is, we loved him, and he loved America. People could quarrel with his ideas, but at least he had ideas. People could bristle at what he represented, but at least he represented something. In this he may have been the last of the old-style politicians.
And though he didn't serve in the armed forces during World War II, Reagan seemed very much the perfect flag-bearer for that "Greatest Generation" identified and idolized by news anchor Tom Brokaw. Reagan was a character created by Will Rogers or a figure from a painting by Norman Rockwell. He might have been considered corny if he wasn't always ready with a quip or a self-deprecating wisecrack to avert pomposity.
It was a very American quality. Ronald Reagan was a very American American. He was the American's American, really. He was a president we could take pride in when he traveled to other countries, even if there was the occasional gaffe. Reagan deflected much ridicule by leading the laughter himself.
For weeks there have been rumors that Reagan was in the last moments of his life, suffering from Alzheimer's, his condition worsening. He fell into a coma. But then, when he did die, yesterday in Los Angeles, there was the aura of anticlimax. It seemed a rite of passage rather than an ending. Reagan had been very real to millions who never physically touched or saw him in more than two dimensions; he was "real" because he used television so well and became a vital presence in American homes, hearts and minds.
Throughout his long career as a communicator, he mastered all media. On radio, he appealed to the imagination in calling play-by-play on games he couldn't even see. In the movies, he was the stereotypical nice-guy hero, not someone you'd cast as Hamlet but not entirely a lightweight either; witness his unnerving performance in the still-shocking drama "Kings Row" or his warm-hearted portrayal of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in "Knute Rockne All American."
It was in "Kings Row," of course, that Reagan shouted the line of dialogue that later became the title of an autobiography: "Where's the rest of me?" And in "Knute Rockne," he indelibly uttered the plea that someday the team go out there on the field and "win one for the Gipper."
He won two for the Gipper, himself, of course -- the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections, fantastic landslides even though, when he ran as an incumbent, the country wasn't in the greatest of economic health. It didn't matter that much, apparently. We trusted the man. And we knew he would try to reward that trust.
Television was the third mass medium Reagan had attempted to scale like the side of a mountain, and he showed natural, or perhaps supernatural, aptitude; he didn't have to pretend to be anybody but himself now, or the mythical version of himself that he honed and perfected from the '30s through the '70s. At first he had to be lured into politics, but Reagan soon found there were things he wanted to say, and whatever you thought of those things, you had to admit he said them brilliantly, in an intimate and conversational style that was a far cry from the ornate oratory of previous eras.
Bombast and braggadocio were not the Reagan style.
As president, Reagan essentially updated the fireside chat -- which his onetime idol Franklin D. Roosevelt had invented for radio -- and turned it into television. He was also adept, however, at delivering grand speeches for grand occasions, and even though he was speaking to vast crowds, he could still come across as accessible and folksy.
Reagan had good speechwriters, for sure, but the delivery always glorified the material rather than the other way around. Of all the speeches he made, the most momentous was probably the address he gave in Europe on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It was emotional, powerful, eloquent. I can't quote any of the exact lines, but I do remember this: It was so deeply moving that it made my mother cry.
Huddled before the TV set that day, we felt a oneness with the rest of the country that normally happens only during catastrophes and tribulations. I felt a personal pride in the president that day, a feeling I don't think any president has inspired to that degree at any time since.
I did get to meet President Reagan a few times, one or two of them the traditional Washington handshake march, with the president being trotted by eager faces and outstretched hands. But another occasion was much more intimate. Nancy Reagan hosted a screening of the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy," starring James Cagney, in the White House. The movie was made by Warner Bros., Reagan's old home studio when he worked in pictures.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company