Give it to the Gipper. And Teddy, too. In this dismal presidential selection season, seemingly marked by lightweights, bloodless technocrats and panderers who promise all things to all people, Ronald Reagan and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) are reminding us that presidential politics is about much more than polls and the latest position in the horse race. It is about passion, strongly held beliefs and the ability to express them.
With Reagan and Kennedy, the president who is and the politician who is not to be, there are no uncertain trumpets. They offer clear, sharply opposing views on national issues and speak for dramatically different segments of America. They best frame the issues for the 1988 presidential debates.
In two weeks, he'll celebrate his 77th birthday, making him the oldest American president. One might think that fact would diminish his standing in a culture obsessed by youth, where a fickle public hungers for the new. It does not.
His White House tenure has been anything but easy. In seven years as president, the longest service since Dwight D. Eisenhower served two terms nearly 30 years ago, Reagan has been shot, had major cancer surgery, suffered through his wife's cancer operation and stumbled through myriad setbacks that would have doomed other leaders.
That roll call of calamities includes the most severe recession since the 1930s, the worst stock-market decline since the great crash of 1929, record levels of national debt imperiling the country's economic future, continuing deterioration of the U.S. competitive position worldwide, the deaths of 241 servicemen in the Beirut terrorist bombing and the Iran-contra debacle, one of the most embarrassing foreign policy blunders of recent times.
Given all of this, Reagan naturally might be expected to step back from the rigors of office in these countdown months of his presidency. But he has no intention of following the example of his favored presidential model.
There will be no hands-off, taciturn "Silent Cal" Coolidge presidential departure for Reagan. His text for the waning days of power is straight from Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night."
At least that's the signal Reagan has been sending.
"As they say in show biz," he said amid cheers at a rally of the Reagan faithful here Tuesday, "let's bring them to their feet with our closing act."
He obviously means to make that act a vehicle for strong defense of causes in which he believes and which remain highly controversial -- contra aid, "privatizing" government services, continuing laissez-faire, trickle-down economic policies. I think he is wrong on all counts, but he is to be applauded for asking the public to continue debating them.
He, too, has experienced enough calamity and disappointment for any public figure's lifetime but also shows no inclination to retreat from beliefs strongly held. Like Reagan, he continues to raise them publicly.
Even as Reagan was setting the stage for his final year in public appearances this week, Kennedy was delivering a passionate political call to arms. In a remarkable address Wednesday to the Woman's National Democratic Club here, Kennedy set forth a compelling case for a different approach by the Democratic Party "to complete the unfinished business of our country."
Kennedy articulated a vision of a more activist national agenda: "Children to be taught, workers to be trained, families to be housed, diseases to be cured, hungry to be fed, homeless to be cared for, rights to be enforced . . . wars to be halted, arms to be reduced, diplomacy to be started, families to be united and apartheid to be ended."
In looking beyond the politics of the New Deal era to the different problems of the 1990s, he also delivered an indictment of the Reagan years that deserves a wider audience, saying:
"Historians will regard these as the years when America, mesmerized by false nostalgia, gave itself momentarily to the grip of self-delusion and selfishness. For the comfortable, it has been a happy time. But even there, something pulls at the heart and tugs at the conscience -- a feeling that America is made for more than this . . . . "
Rhetoric? Sure. So, too, was Reagan's "bring them to their feet" talk. But part of the art of leadership is the ability to frame the debate in terms that the public understands with its head and heart. In this, Reagan and Kennedy possess qualities of leadership that appear strikingly absent in this campaign year.