Images and Memories

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What’s Bill O’Reilly doing on the Today show?” A fair question, with a surprisingly easy answer: He was praising Ronald Reagan and lancing the “ideological press” for mentioning some negatives about Reagan or his presidency before the week of mourning was over.

I asked members of our staff for their memories of the 40th president, and while they were few, they weren’t negative.

One staffer on the north side of 40 years old recalled candidate Reagan’s performance in political debates — such as refusing to hand over the microphone that he “paid for” in 1980, a line that I learned this week he borrowed from the 1948 movie State of the Union but used adeptly.

Another editor, who is younger, was struck by moving remarks Reagan made in 1986 after the Challenger disaster — a searing tragedy the editor witnessed on live TV along with other classmates in the seventh grade.

The week of mourning passed largely as a parade of quietly dignified images from C-SPAN on my desk. C-SPAN followed the flag-draped coffin every step of the way, from the presidential library in Simi Valley to the Capitol and beyond. The customary Rorschach test of callers to the public-affairs network’s Washington Journal was both moving and revealing. From what I heard, the callers were mostly laudatory of their fallen hero at first, then came more bitter memories from other callers, followed by callers who urged critics to keep quiet for the week.

C-SPAN also ran hours of tributes to Reagan from the House floor. Though raised in a house of liberal Democrats, I was drawn to some of the Republican comments most. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan vividly recalled the day his Irish Democrat dad declared, shockingly, that he’d voted for that man. And Georgia’s Jack Kingston said his first impression came courtesy of Joan Baez on the Woodstock concert album, dedicating a song to the then governor “Ronald Raygun.” Kingston later formed his own opinion of Reagan, much more favorable.

Turner Classic Movies gave over to a marathon of Reagan movies on Friday, and host Robert Osborne echoed themes addressed by many other commentators, talking about Reagan’s statecraft skills, not his acting. Osborne said Reagan endured many jokes about his role in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo. “But as a movie star he had much more going for him than working with a chimp. He was immensely likeable on film, charismatic and, yes, he was talented. You don’t carve out a 27-year career in Hollywood and win worldwide recognition as an actor unless you have something very special going for you.”

Last week was the proper time for balanced reflection on Reagan the president and not just for mythmaking. There were some dissenting words, a lot of them in print, but not all that many. But mostly it was an extraordinary and lengthy opportunity for a nation to remember and to share their memories with others, courtesy of the mass media.

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