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Remembering Reagan

Peggy Noonan
Political Commentator
Monday, June 7, 2004; 3:00 PM

Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, who transformed the Republican Party and substantially defined the terms of contemporary political debate during two momentous terms in office, died Saturday afternoon at his home in Bel Air, Calif., after succumbing to a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Political commentator Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speech writer and author of two books about the former president, was online Monday, June 7 at 3 p.m. ET, to discuss Reagan's life, reputation as the "great communicator" and political legacy.


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Noonan is the author of six books on politics and culture and does commentary for MSNBC.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Peggy will be with us momentarily.

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Washington, D.C.: What is your favorite Reagan memory?

Peggy Noonan: Oh my -- favorite Reagan memory. Got a bunch of course. You know, I first met him briefly in 1972, when I was a young college journalist. I interviewed him at the GOP convention. I liked him immediately, and wrote later in my diary, "To see this guy is to want to move to California." I was a young liberal, and I think a socialist on Tuesdays and Thursdays in those days -- struggling through to find what I thought was true. I didn't walk in wanting or ready to like Reagan, and was struck by how much I did. He treated us with respect -- and we were kids in jeans, nobody, and didn't treat him with anything approaching reverence.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Peggy,
We know that it was tough to get Reagan to be gloomy about the future, and sometimes it's tough for conservatives to keep that optimism. Do you know, specifically, how he viewed the successes of the left? For instance, how would he view the defeat of Robert Bork, or the increase in government and since he departed?

Peggy Noonan: Oh I think Reagan felt defeat was built into the equation, you know? Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to Sarah Murphy something like "Life is a cheat and the conditions are those of defeat, but the real redemption lies in work." I think Reagan had some of that feeling -- you just do your best, don't worry about reverses or defeats that you couldn't stop or turn away. Fitzgerald has been on my mind

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Washington, D.C.: The campaign will take a much needed backseat during this week. Do you think it will be possible for the campaign to learn lessons from Ronald Reagan and to apply them going forward? Wouldn't it be wonderful if Reagan's legacy were to include reshaping the modern campaigns to include building alliances and positive, optimistic visions?

I guess my question is -- what lessons can the candidates take from Reagan's gracious style and masterful, genuine playbook?

Peggy Noonan: What I'd like candidates to learn from Reagan is: Be in it for big reasons. Don't just be in it to achieve some sense of personal actualization, or to impress the girl who wouldn't go out with you when you were 17. Don't be in it just for power or fame. Be in it because you have deep belief and are convinced you can make it better.

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Alexandria, Va.: Peggy:

What would Ronald Reagan say about how anti-Americanism is now so fashionable around the world?

Peggy Noonan: He'd say he's not so surprised, I think. Reagan knew a Europe for instance that was wonderfully pro American after WWII. But he saw it turn little by little -- he saw the people who took to the streets in Europe to stop the American Pershings from going in -- and he knew that he himself was controversial in Europe, to say the least. But you know what I'm noticing on tv the past few days? Europeans are talking about Reagan with real respect and affection. The man on the street. This would make Reagan laugh with delight I think.

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Boone, N.C.: Peggy,

Where did President Reagan's words about "a city, shining on a hill" come from? How did that imagery come about? Did you write those memorable words for him?

Did he ever discuss his spiritual side and/or faith in God with you?

Thanks.

Peggy Noonan: The bible. I think it's Matthew. The words city on a hill or shining city on a hill were used by John Winthrop (?) I think, one of the early European settlers to America. Reagan read them years and years ago, and it keyed off something in him.

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Washington, DC: Thanks for providing this chat.

Without making any comment about the merits of Mr. Reagan's presidency, I would like to address the lionization of Mr. Reagan, which appears to have taken place well before Mr. Reagan's death -- witness the International Trade Center, Washington, D.C.'s airport, and a military ship, for starters.

Wasn't it Reagan himself who, while still in office, stated that a man's legacy must be judged through the lens of history, and as such, tributes such as naming buildings and military ships after a person should not occur until some 15 years after a person's death? Aren't those who are clamoring so hard to name everything in this country after Mr. Reagan in fact dishonoring his legacy by ignoring his very explicit wish?

Peggy Noonan: Your first sentence suggests...you have a bit of a point of view here. Okay by me. But realize those of us who admire Reagan, and are so grateful to him for his work and his presence in our lives, know what the media knows, or perhaps is starting to notice: Reagan was, is, beloved by normal regular Americans. And there are a lot of them! I always say of Reagan, He had nobody with him but the people. He didn't have the elites, the academy, the anchormen. He didn't have the network anchor, but he had the cameraman. I know -- I was there in the CBS newsroom in 1980 the night he was elected. A friend asked me yesterday, "What was the vibe?" I said, "Is mass suicide a vibe? Because if so, that was it." He is lionized now in part because he wasn't lionized then. And -- sorry to be cynical -- he is lionized now because tv programmers know there is an audience in it. Because, again, the people loved him.

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Oshkosh, Wis.: I just finished reading your book on Ronald Reagan and it was wonderful. What leaders today in your opinion come closest to President Reagan's ideology?

Peggy Noonan: History changes. Reagan's political philosophy was shocking for his day -- a conservative! in the middle of the Sixties! -- but appropriate to his day. His views grew from his times. A great question for conservatives now is: What is conservatism and what do we stand for? We are in an answering/evolving stage now. Looking for a new Reagan is like looking for a new Churchill: they were sui generis. There's no new Thatcher and no new John Paul. But there will be a new guy you never heard of in 20 years and he'll be the next great man.

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San Bernardino, Calif.: Do you think Nancy Reagan's support for stem cell research as a possible tool to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease might convince reluctant right-wingers (including GWB) to change positions?

Peggy Noonan: Don't know. I have complete respect for her point of view and believe I understand it and what's behind it -- a desire to further explore science and medicine to the betterment of man. But I do not share her views, in part perhaps because it's not the worst thing in life, or the most unrealistic, to have a dark imagination. And I see a lot of the research going on now as making inevitable the Age of the Clone. And the beginning of the Cloned Armies, and the Cloned Replacement Part People... Man should not mess with this.

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Washington, D.C.: Submitting early, in hopes that you will allow a "balanced" chat regarding the former president, and not just a "love-fest." From the standpoint of a regular guy, Reagan in my opinion was the worst thing to happen to the U.S. in a long time. He perpetrated the "trickle-down" economic theory on us, and as you must know, very little if any benefits actually trickled down to us regular folks. Indeed, the same a--holes that are now pulling the young Bush's strings got their start with Reagan, so we are still suffering the effects of reagan's craziness. Nothing happened under reagan other than the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. What's good about that? Any foreign policy things that you want to give Reagan credit for, go ahead, but you can't say he was good for America, unless by that you mean what's good for rich white folks is what's good for America.

Peggy Noonan: Could I do an imitation of Chris Matthews here? You're stupid! You're wrong! You're all wrong! Prove it! I just spat egg salad on the camera lens! You're a left wing apologist!" There, I feel better. I disagree with you, good person, and feel you should be sentenced to two solid hours of Fox in prime time tonight.

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Manhasset, N.Y.: How was it that Reagan could get along with Democrats personally (Tip O'Neil)? It seems that Bush/Clinton both lost that gift. What did he do differently than Bush/Clinton?

Peggy Noonan: I think liberals are exaggerating how much Reagan liked Tip O'Neill. They're doing it because for some reason they're enjoying the past few days making believe the Reagan era was marked by profound political civility. It was not. Reagan himself was profoundly civil, but that's different. Tip O'Neill saw politics as a modern Dem -- gutball competition, kill 'em, it's a game and one for big tough boys. Reagan saw politics as a certain kind of Rep would -- it's something you've got to do. Tip said it was a disgrace Reagan was president. Reagan bore no malice toward him but did think Tip was kind of a living metaphor for big government -- large, and hungry, and growing, and not necessarily beautiful close up.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I feel that President Bush has the strength of character that we found in Ronald Reagan, but not a similar ability to communicate and inspire. What advice do you feel Ronald Reagan (not Peggy Noonan) would give to President Bush if it were possible for them to spend a few hours in conversation?

Peggy Noonan: Yay Brooklyn, borough of my birth.
Advice for Bush? He's getting very eloquent in his remarks lately. I would say lay off the high class high toned self conscious fancy stuff, talk like a guy. Just be direct -- direct. I've come to hate fancy, and I was never much of a fan of it. But you know, we live in the age of instant messages -- we want to be direct, and yearn to be direct.

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Falls Church, Va.: Ms. Noonan: Thanks for doing this chat. The speech I find myself reflecting on today is the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech for D-Day 20 years ago. President Reagan ad libbed a bit during that speech, but with a tone that fit right in. As a writer for him, did that ever make you nervous? Did he ever say anything to you about his departures from the text you prepared?

Peggy Noonan: Oh he always departed from the text. And I mean after he'd gone through it and removed things and added them. You never knew as a speechwriter exactly what he was going to say. But this is true of all speechwriters with all presidents. Arthur Schlessinger tells a charming story -- he wrote a paragraph that he thought lovely and lilting, sent it in, JFK said fine, didn't change a word. Then he stood and gave the speech. In which he distilled Schlessinger's lovely lilting graf to "This is the greatest coming together of human talent since the night Thomas Jefferson dined alone." I do that from memory -- probably don't have it quite right but you remember the moment.

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Houston, Tex.: Have you been approached to work on eulogy that President Bush will deliver on Friday? If not, I wish they would call you!

Peggy Noonan: No, I'm out of that business. I give free advice to all but write speeches now only for me.

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Franklin, Pa.: I was once told the story that you as speech writer for Reagan had been writing in a White House basement office. One day, Reagan came down on a tour and you were introduced to the man for whom you had been writing speeches. I was shocked that you did not personally know the man who spoke your words. I'm serious about that. My question then is shouldn't President speak in a sense their own words?

Peggy Noonan: Ha! No, my first office was not in the basement but in a little dark hall in the EOB overlooking a bunch of air vents. I didn't meet Reagan there, but in his office. There is a story you may be thinking of that I've told and maybe written. In my horrid office I had no furniture. I used to get very tired in the afternoon and lay down for half an hour. But I didn't have a couch so I had to lay down on the floor. I always locked the door, and fell asleep. One afternoon as I slept the door flung open -- I forgot to lock it -- and a guy giving a tour said, 'This is an average office in the White House.' I sat up, and about 12 people from Omaha said, "Hiya!" I said, "Hi!" We all laughed and they left. I thought they must be thinking, "Our tax dollars at work."

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New York, N.Y.: How do you think Ronald Reagan, the man, would have wanted to be remembered?

Peggy Noonan: All of us who loved him have had trouble communicating something about him. But I don't think he would much care how he was remembered. He had an ego -- he was a movie star -- he wanted to win an academy award and be big box office. He wasn't ego-less. He liked to win the election, the battle with Tip O'Neill. But he didn't think...I am still struggling with how to say this...he didn't have this thing in him that needed the endless approbation and approval of the people. He would be very happy to know the Founding Fathers and Mothers approved of his thinking and positions. But he didn't need to be a statue. He believed in a literal heaven, and I think he wanted very much to get there. I don't mean this as sentimental -- he believed in a literal heaven. I imagine he would think heaven is the best of all ranches where you ride the best of all horses to the best of all sunsets. Anyway, he just didn't need endless admiration. He'd be delighted by what is being said about him, but...then his mind would go to someplace else.

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Detroit, Mich.: I feel sorry for the Reagan family for their loss. However, the retrospectives that are airing on TV and being printed are glossing over many of the disastrous policies that occurred during the Reagan administration. The "trickle down" economic policies led to an incredible deficit. (I find it ironic that a conservative politician, who accused Democrats of wanting to tax and spend, was fiscally irresponsible.) Secondly, studies have shown that the chasm between rich and poor deeply widened during the Reagan administration. Thirdly, Reagan's approval of the Iran-contra initiative was a clear violation of the law and was an impeachable offense. These policies and events must also be remembered as part of Reagan's legacy.

Peggy Noonan: My darling wonderful intelligent person, Reagan took the stops (killing inflation, which was what, about 12% under Carter? I forget but it was huge, and killing; and seriously cutting taxes, from a high marginal rate of about 70% to about 28% when he left) that led to the Long Boom that we still enjoy. That our immigrants enjoy for they have jobs, that young people enjoy because they too can find work. Reagan didn't kill those with nothing, he liberated an economy so it could start to give them something. Compare America in 1975 and America in 2004 in purely economic terms: we have become rich.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm sorry, but I think the reaction to Reagan's death is greatly overdone. If we didn't have a Republican president today, do you think we'd have a week-long parade of memorial events and the Feds getting a day off? Would we have this if it were Jimmy Carter who had died? This is all out of proportion to Reagan's importance and contributions.

Peggy Noonan: Oh dear. Well, do you think the men and women of America feel toward Jimmy Carter what they feel toward Reagan?
As for Clinton, I bet he'll give a great address on Friday at the funeral, deftly telling funny/touching stories and giving Reagan a part of what is his due. Bush better watch it -- Clinton is going to come on strong.

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El Segundo, Calif.: Thanks for your views, Peggy. Reagan's appeal will always be lost and unappreciated in elite circles because he bypassed them and spoke directly to regular American people. I, too, yearn for a candidate who wants to be president because he/she believes in something (other than self-aggrandizement) and wants to achieve something visionary. You spoke in your first book about Roosevelt being "The President" of our parents' generation; Reagan will always be "My President" because of the respect he regained for America -- respect from our enemies, respect from our allies. We're missing that today, don't you think?

Peggy Noonan: I have a site, one of those dot com pages, where people write to me. I have received so much mail the past two days from people saying exactly what you're saying. Yes, this man was my president, our president. I think maybe every generation gets one. I keep thinking of the funeral. I hope we give him a standing ovation. I hope we throw him a salute. I hope Bush says, 'We lowered the American flag to mark his passing, but today I ask all Americans, at 5pm, at dusk, to raise your flags, to put up the flag and have it fly high to mark a great man and a great life.'

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Peggy,

I think you are just great and I have enjoyed all of your commentary through out the weekend.

President Reagan will be very much missed and was one of the greatest presidents in American History. And while he had had many many strengths -- in your opinion what was his one greatest weakness?

Thanks.

Peggy Noonan: His greatest weakness benefited us but hurt his family. He was utterly engaged on an intellectual and emotional level by great issues, by great philosophy, by freedom, by America. He gave it so much, but I interviewed his daughter Patti once and she told me America was like another kid in the family, and it was the kid that got all the attention. It was tough on them. Those kids got no free ride.

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Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Noonan -

I'll never forget watching President Reagan's speech after the space shuttle explosion. I was 12 -- and from that moment, Reagan defined what "presidential" means to me.

Can you tell us who wrote the lines? They were spoken with such grace and feeling -- and they make me cry every time I hear them. I'd love to know who wrote them.

Thank you.

Peggy Noonan: You mean when Reagan talked about the astronauts and how they waved goodbye to us that morning, and then "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." He couldn't break the thought with "as John Gillespie Magee Junior once wrote" but he was quoting from Magee's poem "High Flight." It was a famous poem during his young manhood, famous from the days when poems were famous. Reagan was so upset about the Challenger that he looked stricken when he gave the speech, and he didn't think he had done well by the way. But by the next morning he'd gotten calls and telegrams and though, "I did okay."

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Portland, Ore.: No question, just a thank you.

I read "When Character was King" outloud to my pre-teen children. Thank you Peggy for a really great book and superb insight into this great man.

Peggy Noonan: Oh thank you! That book was a labor of love and I like it a lot when people say they read it aloud because I read it all aloud as I wrote -- I wanted it to be rounded and readable-out-loud.

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Gambrills, Md.: As a Democrat, I think we should give credit where credit is due. Reagan did help accelerate the end of the Soviet Empire, and that is probably his greatest accomplishment. However, that being said, Reagan was no saint. His environmental and economic policies were based on his trickle-down approach, which really was a disaster to most people in the middle class, and probably was the cause of the recession that eventually helped elect Clinton. Before George W. Bush, Reagan was the first President to balloon the federal deficit to astronomical levels, and he spent money like a college kid with too many credit cards.

Frankly, he made some great speeches, (the Challenger disaster comes to mind), but my image of Reagan will always be him and Nancy, walking to the Presidential helicopter, with Reagan holding his hand up to his ear, pretending not to hear Sam Donaldson's questions.

Peggy Noonan: If you worked every day with Sam Donaldson you'd make believe you didn't hear him too. I agree with you that Reagan's great accomplishment was the fall of the Soviet Union -- I don't think he accelerated it but rather pushed it. I agree with you he was no saint. He was a person. He had all sorts of quirks and human oddnesses and flaws. For me that goes without saying.

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Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: With a Republican in the White House and a majority in the House and Senate, is it likely that a bill will pass soon authorizing a memorial on the mall for President Reagan?

Peggy Noonan: Oh, I don't know. I think the state of California should put a new statue in Statuary Hall. I think it should be of Reagan in his riding jeans and his work shirt, walking forward, cowboy hat in hand. A statue of Reagan in Statuary Hall -- that's what I'd like. In there with Daniel Webster and Jack Swigert and Tom Jefferson and Henry Clay. He should enter the pantheon.

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