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Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Other Views

Reaganís last laughs, literally and figuratively

Commentary by Pat Murphy

In the days when American presidents respected France as a valued ally and not demeaned as an "old Europe" relic as todayís U.S. presidency has done, French President Francois Mitterand rejected the notion that Ronald Reagan was "The Great Communicator."

Rather, he hailed Reagan as a great commune-ator: Mitterand said Reagan communed with people, not lectured them.

Not surprisingly, remembrances of Reaganís iconic earthiness and uplifting cheery wit are dominating the eulogies for his passing.

Reagan unquestionably wouldíve been a disaster as president had he been of the stuff of some recent commanders-in-chief óstern and humorless and under the thumb of political spin doctors dictating words and movesóhad he lacked what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called Reaganís "infectiously optimistic" mien, and had he not had years as an actor prepping for his role on the world stage.

Fortuitously, the witty Reagan had the last laugh on critics. He shattered dour expectations that a Hollywood movie actor couldnít master the presidency: Not only did he lift the nation out of a self-destructive funk in the 1980s with humor and an unfailing belief in the American spirit, but easily earned credit for negotiating an end to the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall with his Soviet Russian opposite, Mikhail Gorbochev, and even neutralized a lot of criticism of his presidencyís failings with humor.

Whatever other judgments historians bestow on Reagan, heíll surely rank alongside another chief executive with magical verbal skills, President Franklin Roosevelt, for restoring a nationís self confidence. Reaganís pioneering Saturday radio talks (his successors continue the practice) are eerily similar to FDRís radio "fireside chats."

Although we had no special place in Reaganís circle, my wife and I found ourselves in the White House on July 16, 1986, at a black tie dinner with Reagan and his wife Nancy along with others the Reagans had befriended over the years.

(We knew the Reagans in their pre-White House days when they visited Nancyís mother, Edie, and stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, who lived in Phoenix where I was publisher of the morning and afternoon newspapers.)

The evening was festive and neighborly, but elegant and stylish as befitted the Reagan White House.

A few serious moments of dinner table talk were drowned out by light chit-chat.

At Reaganís table, one of our eight (they included Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke and then-congressman Dick Cheneyís wife Lynne) was a young Olympic swimmer from Tennessee.

Puckishly, Reagan leaned forward and announced, as though he was sharing a state secret, that he held a swimming record from boyhood that had never been broken. This for the benefit of the young Olympian.

Really, we replied almost in unison. Whatís the record?

Well, he said, with that lingering, signature pronunciation of "wel-l-l-l," he swam the river in Dixon, Illinois, his boyhood home, in record time.

And why hadnít the record been broken we wondered aloud?

"That part of the river went dry" not long after that and was unswimmable.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.