By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page A23
Back in 1984 I wrote about the travails of being a twin -- about how I never got to have my own birthday and how things had recently gotten even worse because, as it happened, Ronald Reagan had also been born on Feb. 6. Soon afterward I was feverishly scribbling up an anti-Reagan screed when a telegram arrived from Air Force One -- a birthday greeting, graceful and witty, from a sympathetic Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The screed would have to wait for another day.
That aspect of Reagan -- his niceness, his graciousness and his indomitable good humor -- has been much remarked on since the 40th president died, and so I will not bore you with more of the same. I'd just like to say, though, that these qualities -- and all they represented -- transformed the modern presidency. After Reagan, politicians everywhere tried to be Reagan.
This is not the time to quibble about Reagan's place in history, such as whether he single-handedly ended the Cold War. It is the time, though, to acknowledge he was right about the Soviet Union -- it was the "evil empire" -- and about welfare abuses and the occasional arrogant insularity of Big Government. On certain issues, he had been intellectually courageous for breaking with the liberal orthodoxy of Hollywood and his own past.
Above all, Reagan was very much a paradoxical figure. He was famously genial but impossible to know well. He could be astoundingly ignorant about the basic facts of government or policy -- both in Sacramento and Washington -- and he could create his own world, not just as a movie actor but also as a public figure. He sometimes confused fiction with fact, simply, I think, because he preferred life to have three acts, the last ending in a magnificent sunset. He was not just an optimist. He was a fabulist.
This was Reagan's most important -- and characteristic -- paradox and, in a way, his gift. When he declared his candidacy for California governor, he was derided as nothing but an actor -- and a "B" one at that. (To their regret, Jimmy Carter's campaign aides held the same view.) But Reagan knew better. In a television age, there is no such thing as a mere actor. It is the most invaluable experience a politician can have.
Reagan understood that. But he understood -- or felt -- something else as well: the camera does not lie. It's not merely that it captures reality but that it delves into the soul. He was convinced that if you liked someone on the screen you would like him in person -- that the camera reveals personality and character. He knew, based on success in the movies, that he had both. And he knew, too, that his movie and public-speaking careers had given him the tools -- call it artifice, if you will -- to exhibit those qualities.
Television allowed Reagan to revert to an older style of leadership, when a commander faced his troops and exhorted them in person. The qualities of leadership that once were exhibited to a small group could, with television, be extended infinitely. Of course, Reagan was too skilled to shout or declaim. His version of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") would have been said softly. FDR understood the power of radio, and Reagan understood the much greater power of television.
During Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, for instance, Lesley Stahl of CBS did a long (four-minute) piece about his contradictions. She showed him appearing at old-age homes and institutions for the handicapped, and then noted that he had reduced funding for those programs. Afterward, the White House thanked her for the piece. The pictures were terrific. They were all that mattered.
One other paradox: Reagan was a cottage industry for biographers and others who sought to plumb his depths. His inner self mattered, we were told, and so too did his lackadaisical parenting. But watching television over the weekend, I found myself not caring. Time sifts the petty from the grand. Abraham Lincoln had a difficult marriage. It matters more -- it matters only -- that Lincoln preserved the Union.
For a long time now, I've found myself thinking of Reagan -- perplexed by him, wondering about him, envisioning him in the spongy grip of Alzheimer's. This is the final paradox. I opposed much of what he did and much of what he tried to do -- Star Wars, for instance. But he nonetheless came to mind every Feb. 6, and he was welcome.
Like you, I knew him well. And like you, I did not know him at all.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company