"If he were not the greatest President, he was the best Actor of the Presidency we have ever had." --John Adams, on George Washington
America's Presidents tend to die young. Maybe it is in the nature of the men who reach such heights, or of the job once they attain it. But only John Adams and Herbert Hoover lived past 90; Ronald Reagan was the third, and perhaps the only one to achieve the goal of dying young as late as possible. When he passed away last week at age 93, he had long been gone from the public stage; but that meant that people remembered him as he had always been, a man of easy grace and endless hope, whose hair would never turn gray; a man who, the first time he walked into the Oval Office as President on the day of his first Inaugural, got goose bumps and wasn't ashamed to say so.
Hope is an infectious disease, and Reagan was a carrier. The country he courted and finally won over in 1980 was a dispirited place, humiliated abroad, uncertain at home, with a hunger for heroes but little faith that they could make any difference. But you can, he told us. I am not the hero, you are. "Let us renew our faith and our hope," he declared in his first Inaugural Address. "We have every right to dream heroic dreams." And he would serve as Dreamer in Chief. "What I'd really like to do," he said after six months in the White House, "is go down in history as the President who made Americans believe in themselves again."
In the process, he made them believe in the presidency as well. After the 1960s and '70s, there were real doubts about whether a mortal man could handle the country's highest office. It had destroyed Johnson, corrupted Nixon and overwhelmed Ford and Carter. Reagan restored the belief that an ordinary American raised in the heartland could lead the country and give it a sense of direction and purpose. At a time when the country had been captivated by youth culture for more than a decade, voters chose a President who was nearly 70 when he took office, a kind of living time capsule of the American Century, born before the phrase world war had been introduced, a child when the Russian Revolution gave birth to the empire whose defeat he would accomplish as President. Somehow it took America's oldest President to make the country feel young again, its mission not yet completed, its glory days ahead.
Even if it wasn't always morning in America during the years of his presidency, Reagan's eagerness to insist that it was tapped into a longing among voters. They didn't want to picture themselves turning down their thermostats and buttoning up their cardigans. They wanted to strut again. Reagan opened his arms and said, Walk this way. And when the country had to mourn, he led it in grieving that was eloquent yet unbowed, as in 1986, when he postponed his State of the Union address to speak of the Challenger disaster. "We will never forget them," he said of the shuttle's crew, "nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."