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Jon Meacham: Why Reagan Is So Popular Now

Jon Meacham, writing in Newsweek (Dec. 29, 2003):

[T]he reverence in which Reagan's held seems confounding to critics of his administration. Many liberal-leaning people who still can't get over the move to count ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches find themselves flummoxed by Reagan's rising reputation: he is outpolling Washington, Lincoln and FDR in some surveys of great presidents.

Presidential hero worship is nothing new—FDR's death brought tears to the eyes of millions, and Kennedy memorials proliferated in the grief after Dallas—but the intensity of the affection for Reagan is remarkably wide and deep for this more cynical age. The fury over the soap-operatic CBS mini-series about the president and Nancy roiled the nation for weeks in this year of hot wars and fears of terrorism; other docu-dramas with fictional elements, from a heroic rendering of Bush 43's 9/11 performance to Kennedy shows with bad Boston accents and faked sex scenes, failed to produce similar levels of outrage.

Why? I think part of the explanation lies less in the experience of the 1980s and more in what happened to Reagan in the 1990s, as Alzheimer's took hold. The public's esteem stems not only from respect for the substance of what he accomplished in office or from sympathy, but from a subliminal respect for the strength of a man to endure so much so long. Detractors can question what he stood for; fans can airbrush his legacy (which is itself dangerous; turning great men into monuments robs them of their humanity and, often, their ability to resonate in future generations). But no one can gainsay his pure will to live in tragic circumstances. As he clings to life, much of the nation is not yet ready to begin a cold assessment of his vices and his virtues. Let him go in peace, America was saying this year: let him go in peace. After that, there will be plenty of time to fight the wars of biography and history. But only after.