Ronald Reagan’s RainbowPAUL KENGOR
How could Reagan, obviously knowledgeable of Alzheimer's, describe the onset of his disease as a coming sunset? The answer was Reagan's secret weapon: his optimism. He called it an eternal optimism, a "God-given optimism."
was a man who had it all. It is difficult to identify an American who lived a
fuller, or greater, life — what he understatedly called "An American Life."
In nearly everything he did, Reagan succeeded wildly. When he left his parents'
home in 1932, he landed a coveted job in radio. Then came the movies and television,
in the heyday of each medium. In the 1930s, when most of America suffered, Reagan
soared. By the 1940s, he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood and
received more fan mail than any actor at Warner Brothers except Errol Flynn. His
hosting of the number-one rated television show GE Theatre from 1954 to 1962 made
him one of the most recognized names in America.
Of course, after
that, he entered politics and twice won the governorship of the nation's largest
state and the presidency of the world's most powerful nation. And I'm certain
that his epitaph will be that he was the president who won the Cold War.
Where did this record of achievement begin? It started with humble origins: at
the Rock River at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois, where a teenage Reagan lifeguarded
seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day, for seven summers. He was the rock
at the Rock River, always watching. He saved the lives of 77 people there: "One
of the proudest statistics of my life," he said later. Saving a drowning victim
is not easy under any circumstance, but it was especially difficult in the treacherous
Rock River, where the swirling water is so deep and murky that swimming there
today has long been banned.
Still, the job was a labor of love for Reagan.
"My beloved lifeguarding," he later called it. Even when Alzheimer's meant he
couldn't recognize his closest friends when they visited him in his Los Angeles
office in the 1990s, Reagan could point to the painting on his wall, a colorful
illustration of the spot where he patrolled the Rock River, and longingly reminisce.
On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan handwrote a letter informing the world
that Alzheimer's disease was riding him into "the sunset of my life." That choice
of words was astonishing: Alzheimer's is a horrific disease that robs memories.
In just a few years, Reagan wouldn't even remember the White House.
could he refer to that impending doom as the sunset of his life? Was he ignorant
of the disease? Not at all. As president, Reagan made eight separate statements
on Alzheimer's — an average of one for each year in the White House. It is
chilling to read those words today.
Alzheimer's, said Reagan,
is an "indiscriminate killer of mind and life" — a "devastating" sickness
that "deprives its victims of the opportunity to enjoy life." It "ranks among
the most severe of afflictions, because it strips people of their memory and judgment
and robs them of the essence of their personalities. As the brain progressively
deteriorates, tasks familiar for a lifetime, such as tying a shoelace or making
a bed, become bewildering. Spouses and children become strangers." "Slowly," reported
Reagan, "victims of the disease enter profound dementia."
had unwittingly forecast his own demise.
So, how could Reagan, obviously
knowledgeable of Alzheimer's, describe the onset of his disease as a coming sunset?
I've watched sunsets on the California coast, indeed from the very "Ranch in the
Sky" that Reagan did. The answer was Reagan's secret weapon: his optimism. He
called it an eternal optimism, a "God-given optimism."
He first discovered
that gift through his mother, Nelle Reagan, who (along with Nancy) was the most
important person in his life. Nelle instilled in her son the Christian faith so
fundamental to his very being. She taught him that the twists and turns in the
road are there for a reason. The bad things are part of "God's plan" for the good.
There is a rainbow waiting around the bend. God, Reagan reasoned, was in control
and worked everything for the best.
Reagan preached this theology in
his memoirs and in countless private letters that today sit in the Reagan Library.
It became a kind of grief ministry. He would write to a widow: It's a tragedy
that your husband died and I write to send my deepest condolences; if it's any
comfort, God has a plan. ...
In 1962, the woman who shared such
thinking with Reagan died of what the family called "senility;" what we today
would likely diagnose as Alzheimer's. Yet, Reagan remained optimistic. His mother's
death, he told friends, was a step through an eternal window — to that rainbow
waiting around the bend.
"How we die is God's business," Reagan
told his daughter Patti. Our duty is to accept it. As a 17-year-old, he wrote
a poem called "Life." Here is a revealing excerpt:
does sorrow drench us
When our fellow passes on?
He's just exchanged life's
For an eternal life of song.
of this explains how the eternal optimist, in that November 1994 letter, could
be positive even as Alzheimer's was crowding in, about to cast his mind into oblivion.
is telling that in that brief letter to the American people, Ronald Reagan mentioned
God and faith four times. "When the Lord calls me home," he wrote, "I will leave
with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future."
Since that goodbye, it has been an unpleasant 10 years for a man whose life
was so richly blessed; he enjoyed precious few sunsets. Now, at last, Ronald Reagan
can rest in peace. Enjoy that rainbow, Mr. President.
Paul Kengor. "Ronald Reagan’s Rainbow." Catholic Education
Resource Center (June 11, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution. He is the author most recently of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006) as well as God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life, and the best selling God and Ronald Reagan, He is co-editor, along with Peter Schweizer, of Assessing the Reagan Presidency (Rowman-Littlefield, 2005). Paul Kengor is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Contact Kengor at email@example.com
© 2004 Paul Kengor