Ronald Reagan, A Symbol of his Generation

As president, Reagan expanded the boundaries of freedom at home and abroad.

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Was it more than mere coincidence that Ronald Reagan died on the same weekend that the nation celebrated the heroes of World War II at Normandy? Was there a larger message there somehow?

Perhaps. America, after all, has often seen death strike in ways that prompt popular speculation. On July 4, 1826--exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence--two of its architects, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died on the same day. Long after, Americans still wondered if their deaths symbolized how our leaders often come together in key moments.

Later in the century, in a single day, Teddy Roosevelt lost the two people he loved most, his wife and his mother. "The light has gone out of my life," he lamented. Ever since, observers have wondered whether that painful day was meant to be TR's crucible--a testing by fire from which he ultimately drew the strength to become a Rushmorean.

And so it is today that we are left to wonder whether the death of President Reagan, on the same weekend we celebrated the soldiers of World War II, has some special meaning. Certainly, the extraordinary outpouring of warmth and affection that marked Reagan's farewell last week suggested that the nation's spirit has been moved.

Reagan himself was the principal cause of the outpouring. The thousands who stood in Washington's sweltering heat to say goodbye knew he was special. As president, Reagan expanded the boundaries of freedom at home and abroad. He rebuilt the institution of the presidency and, most of all, restored Americans' faith in the future. Reagan made us smile again.

But one suspects that people also responded to his loss because they felt something missing in our public lives today--we find the father figures of our past slipping away from us, and we don't yet have the same sense of confidence and security in their successors. What we have felt this past week is the passing of a generation--leaders like Reagan and the men and women we now call the World War II generation.

Ronald Reagan has come to symbolize that generation. While never a hero himself, he served honorably, and his leadership was in many ways rooted in the war. As president, he would often recall the way Franklin Roosevelt--whom Reagan voted for four times--inspired Americans to overcome challenges no one thought they could even meet. He loved to tell the tales of ordinary people who did extraordinary things during the war--heroes like Jimmy Doolittle in his daring raid over Tokyo and the "boys of Pointe du Hoc" who scaled the cliffs in the face of German machine gunners.

It didn't seem to matter whether all of his stories were completely true. Celebrating Medal of Honor winners at a dinner, he told of a B-17 bomber flying over Europe. German antiaircraft fire hit the plane, and it started going down. While the men up front jumped for safety, the rear gunner was wounded and couldn't get out. He sat terrified, awaiting death. Suddenly, an older man appeared, the pilot. "Never mind," he told the injured gunner, "we'll ride it down together." That story is recorded nowhere in military annals and may have come from one of the movies Reagan so loved, Wing and a Prayer . But no one really cared. Americans knew there were thousands of genuine heroes in those days, and Reagan gave them life through his stories.

In all, America had seven presidents of the World War II generation, from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush. Each of them wore a uniform during World War II. Jimmy Carter was studying at the Naval Academy when the war ended and went on to serve honorably as a submariner. For each, the war was among their most defining experiences. It was no accident that Kennedy had a replica of his PT boat in his inaugural parade and that, years later, in his inaugural, the elder Bush had a replica of the Avenger aircraft that had been shot out from under him.

Not many of the World War II presidents were as successful as Reagan. Johnson had Vietnam; Nixon had Watergate; Carter had the hostages in Iran. Reagan was the only one of the seven who served two full terms in the White House. But in the rear-view mirror of history, the World War II generation looks better and better. Americans are growing more appreciative of LBJ's monumental achievements in civil rights, Carter has become a saint, Bush has a son in the White House, and the Kennedy Library has saluted Ford for his courage in pardoning Nixon. At Nixon's death, there was an unexpected outburst of sentiment, and now with Reagan, we have seen an explosion.