Reaganís last laughs, literally and
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
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
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
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
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
"That part of the river went dry" not long
after that and was unswimmable.