It was with sadness and shock that most of us greeted former President Ronald Reagan's announcement last month that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Is this the way the Gipper, arguably the most important world leader since the Second World War, meets his end, not with a bang, as Eliot said, but a whimper?
It is far too early to offer a eulogy, but not too early to examine just why the revelation is so unsettling. Millions of older Americans suffer Alzheimer's, and, at nearly 84 years of age, the former president is not being cut down in his youth. The difficulty is reconciling the certainty of helplessness that is Alzheimer's, with the image of strength that is Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan always has seemed indomitable, in both mind and body. We all read about his prostate and colon cancers, and his surgery following a serious head injury just a few years ago. We all watched on television as a would-be assassin put a bullet in his chest, and learned later about his sense of humor even in the emergency room. ("I hope all of you are Republicans," he said to the doctors.) It was the stuff of legends.
This is the president who fearlessly stood up to the aggression and might of the Soviet Union, who rebuilt America's military, bringing the Evil Empire to its knees and igniting a worldwide firestorm of freedom. This is the man who came to the White House at a time when double-digit inflation, high interest rates and recession had made many believe that the American dream was all but lost; a time when American hostages in a far-off land had made our nation seem helpless and weak for over a year; when the burning wreckage of the failed Desert One mission was a stark symbol of how far we had fallen from Mount Suribachi.
But Ronald Reagan was never against the bad so much as he was for the good. He did not swear to destroy the Soviet Union. He predicted, rather, that it would crumble on its own, that its last pages were being written even as he promised that we would "not defeat Communism, we (would) transcend communism." He was not elected because he decried big government, but because he recognized that the real source of America's hope is her people. During his presidency, his unswerving confidence and faith in the greatness of the American people was returned to him by the longest peacetime period of economic growth in postwar history. That boom was fueled largely by the small businessmen, entrepreneurs and blue collar workers who believed, and still believe, that they, and not government, are the rightful masters of their own destiny.
It is not hard to believe that Ronald Reagan is human, nor that he has the same physical weaknesses as the rest of us. Still, while many current politicians try to exploit their own personal tragedies for political gain, who knew of Reagan's childhood of poverty with an alcoholic father? Who was really aware of his wife's fight with breast cancer? President Reagan never cried on our shoulders. Instead, it seemed, in the times of greatest darkness, he always had his brightest vision.
And so it is with his current illness. Where many of us might see only our end, our suffering, our pain, Ronald Reagan worries most about his wife. When telling us, in his open letter, that he is now entering the sunset of his life, he reminds us that "for America there will always be a brighter dawn ahead." This is the man we re-elected overwhelmingly in 1984. This is the president who remains beloved by most Americans even after six years of unanswered media revisionism and political attack. This is the man who has always placed others before himself, country before comfort, and faith above all else.
We believe in Ronald Reagan because he has always believed in us. We find it hard to accept his diagnosis because we cannot believe that even Alzheimer's can defeat the optimism, good cheer and honest faith that is Ronald Reagan. Maybe the man who made so many believe in America again can now make us believe in the dignity and sanctity of our fragile human lives. Perhaps Ronald Reagan can show us how to live with hardship the way he enabled us to live in prosperity.