It is never too late," George Eliot wrote, "to be what you might have been."
Ronald Reagan very much believed in that. He refashioned himself any number of times, always keeping track of the goal, never keeping track of the clock.
As was often pointed out when he ran for president in 1980, he would become 70 within a few weeks of being inaugurated. Only William Henry Harrison had been that old when he became president, and he died of pneumonia one month later.
Ronald Reagan didn't care. Things had always worked out for him. Which was one source of his optimism: He had achieved everything he set out to achieve. He had gone from humble beginnings to become a sportscaster, then an actor, then a governor, and, finally, president.
He had always attained his goals, had always lifted himself up by his own bootstraps, and saw no reason others couldn't do the same--once he lifted the burden of the welfare state from their shoulders, that is. "The real destroyer of the liberties of the people," Reagan said in his famous 1964 televised speech on behalf of the Republican Party, "is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits."
Such things were not needed, not by Ronald Reagan anyway. Not only was his own life evidence of the fact, he felt, but so was the other great influence on his thinking: the movies. In the movies, things almost always turned out for the best. Things almost always turned out just swell.
Reagan knew the movies were fantasy, but he knew that Americans loved fantasy, and it was a world in which he liked to dwell, a world where America was always right, where good always triumphed over evil, and where a sunny, can-do attitude and a bright smile were better than a pocketful of gold. "For Ronald Reagan, the world of legend and myth is a real world," said Patrick Buchanan, former White House communications director, in 1988. "He visits it regularly, and he's a happy man there." Presidents we now associate with hope and optimism--John F. Kennedy, for instance--often sounded the most somber notes in their speeches, as if the weight of the world was upon their shoulders, which, of course, it was. In his inaugural address Kennedy pledged to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
This was not the language of Ronald Reagan. He promised peace and prosperity, guns and butter, a triumphant America and a vanquished Soviet Union--all without any real sacrifice on the part of the American people.
"Let's make America great again!" he said. And his "morning in America" and "shining city upon a hill" were designed to stand in marked contrast to the gloom and doom of Jimmy Carter's malaise.
Things would work out because they always did, they always had. All Americans needed was a leader who could give them a sense of confidence, inspiration, and hope--just as he had done in the movies. Just as he had done when he played a dying football player and asked his team to "win one for the Gipper." As Reagan told broadcaster David Brinkley near the end of his second term, "There have been times in this office when I've wondered how you could do the job if you hadn't been an actor."
On the eve of his election in 1980, a reporter asked Reagan what people saw in him. "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I'm one of them?" Reagan replied. "I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
It was true. He and his audience were one. He had no doubts about the future of his country. None. And neither did those who supported him. At the end of his second term he said, "And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts."
And when that sad day came in 1994, when he wrote his letter to the American people announcing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, even then, he chose to focus on what was bright and hopeful and good.
"When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be," he wrote, "I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."