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Kengor Writes . . .

Paul Kengor

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Changing the Mood: Two Inaugurals - JFK and Reagan

This January 20 marks the anniversary of two unforgettable inaugural addresses from two beloved presidents, Democrat and Republican: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. For Kennedy's speech, this is the golden anniversary, 50 years; for Reagan, 30 years.

Both speeches were extraordinary. Kennedy's lasting line was, of course, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Reagan's most memorable phrase was probably this one: "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. . . . Let us begin an era of national renewal." Reagan's line struck the New York Times, which, the next day, thrust the words "era of national renewal" atop page one.

In both inaugurals, there was no mistaking the message, or the mood that followed. Both initiated a profound, palpable, quite immediate change in the nation's morale and sense of itself. The shift was dramatic. Of course, it wasn't just the speeches that made the difference, but the men who made them, with the inaugurals their starting points.

As evidence of the specialness of these two men and their presidencies, consider what happened in between. Between Kennedy and Reagan there was an extended bipartisan disaster, with two Democrats as bookends, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and two Republicans in between, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Those four presidencies ended in defeat, despair, debilitation, or even ruin. LBJ was destroyed by Vietnam, and decided not to pursue reelection. Nixon resigned in disgrace and suffered a mental breakdown. Ford, not an inspiring figure, never won an election. Carter lost 44 states to Reagan. Harvard's renowned presidential scholar, the late Richard Neustadt, remarked that watching Jimmy Carter, one wondered if the presidency was "even possible."

Amid all this was Vietnam, the counter culture, Watergate, malaise, misery index, unemployment, double-digit inflation, 21-percent interest rates, energy crisis, oil shocks, the Soviets in Afghanistan, hostages in Iran, and on and on. It was a prolonged national nightmare.

Really, Kennedy's message of hope, so forceful on January 20, 1961, dissipated like dust in the wind.

But then came Reagan, precisely 20 years later, January 20, 1981.

The moment Reagan swore the oath, he committed himself to "national renewal." Unbeknownst to the press, those two words flowed directly from his personal pen. The theme pervaded the ceremony. On the reverse side of the tickets for the inaugural event was this promise: "America - A Great New Beginning, 1981."

It is not an exaggeration to say the change in mood began that instant, as the hostages were freed in Tehran - prompting The New York Times to double its top-of-the-fold headline: "Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President; Promises an 'Era of National Renewal;' Minutes Later, 52 U.S. Hostages in Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal."

Those who experienced the moment, including presidential scholars in that era, agreed that Reagan achieved that renewal. As quick as the end of Reagan's first term, academic historians and political scientists - most of whom were on the political left - hailed Reagan for his "restoration of morale and trust" to the country and presidency. Specifically, a major 1985 survey by National Journal found scholars commending Reagan for "reviving trust and confidence" in an institution "that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable." Harvard's Neustadt spoke for many of the scholars when he said that Reagan gave Americans a sense that "all was well," a sea-change from the Carter malaise.

Outside the academy, Time's dean of presidential correspondents, Hugh Sidey, said flatly: "No one can deny that Ronald Reagan restored morale to a country that needed it." Edmund Morris, Reagan's official biographer, and generally a cynic, went so far as to claim that Reagan transformed the national mood "overnight." The change was so rapid, said Morris, "that it can only be ascribed to him."

Most telling, similar assessments came even from the enemy's camp. If Ronald Reagan had read Russian, he would have been blown away by an assessment from the erstwhile Evil Empire. There, the publication, Literaturnaya Gazeta, informed Soviet citizens:

The years of [Reagan's] presidency have seen an unprecedented surge in America's self-belief, and quite a marked recovery in the economy. . . . Reagan restored America's belief that it is capable of achieving a lot.

The Communist publication closed glowingly: "Reagan is giving America what it has been yearning for. Optimism. Self-belief. Heroes."

Of course, Kennedy, too, gave that to America.

Today, it seems inconceivable that a president from either party would be universally seen as a hero, inspiring so much optimism and self-belief. Yet, in the last half-century, it happened twice, 50 years ago this January 20, with JFK's inauguration, and 30 years ago this January 20, with Reagan's inauguration. Those were good times, rare times - worth preserving, maybe even recovering.

Ronald Reagan: The Anti-Nixon/Kissinger

This February marks the birth centennial of Ronald Reagan. As a Reagan biographer, I'm often asked how Reagan was different from his predecessors, Republican and Democrat, and especially in the area of foreign policy. There were many ways, but here are two of the most fundamental:

First, Reagan actually believed he could win the Cold War. He committed himself to that goal early and unequivocally. To cite just one example, Richard V. Allen, his first national security adviser, recalls a discussion in January 1977, four years before the presidency, when Reagan told him flatly: "Dick, my idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose."

In this, Reagan stood apart from not only Democrats like Jimmy Carter but Republicans like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and their chief foreign-policy adviser, Henry Kissinger.

But there's another way Reagan was so different from the likes of Nixon and Kissinger in particular. It's a poignant example involving long-persecuted Soviet Jews. It was recently driven home to me, yet again, when I heard newly released comments by Nixon and Kissinger.

Kissinger and Nixon placed detente with the Soviets above all else. Their approach was pure Machiavellian realpolitik. They did not frame the U.S.-Soviet confrontation as good vs. evil, as Reagan did. Their goal wasn't to defeat the Soviet Union. Their prevailing priority was getting along with the Soviets. They pursued that objective at almost any expense, whether keeping Eastern Europeans captive behind the Iron Curtain or keeping Russian Jews from emigrating.

In the early 1970s, pressure had been building on the Nixon administration to lobby the Soviets to ease up on restrictions on Jews. Both Kissinger and Nixon were dismissive. How dismissive? The latest round of released tapes shows Kissinger offering an awful assessment to his White House boss on March 1, 1973.

"The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy," Kissinger stated coldly. "And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

Nixon responded: "I know. We can't blow up the world because of it."

Alas, here is a painfully instructive example of how Ronald Reagan so differed even from intensely anti-Communist Republicans of his era. Reagan would have been aghast at these comments. In fact, Reagan was willing to "blow up" negotiations with the Soviets over matters like Jewish emigration.

Reagan hounded Mikhail Gorbachev on this issue. About 10 years ago, the official "MemCons," or Memoranda of Conversation, from the various Reagan-Gorbachev one-on-ones were declassified, from the Geneva to Moscow summits. In these, Reagan repeatedly dug at Gorbachev on emigration of Jews, to the point where Gorbachev snapped at the president.

Such persecuted Russians (Jews and non-Jews) were constantly on Reagan's mind. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci recalled that the president "would walk around with lists in his pocket of people who were in prison in the Soviet Union." Each time Secretary of State George Shultz prepared to meet with a Soviet official, Reagan pulled out the names - "some of whom we'd heard of but most of whom we hadn't," said Carlucci - and say, "I want you to raise these names with the Soviets." And sure enough, said Carlucci, "George would raise them and one by one they would be released or allowed to leave."

Reagan advisers confirmed this to me, including Shultz. When I asked Shultz about it, his typical understated expression widened into a giant grin. "Oh, yes," he told me. "He always had that list and never hesitated to give me a few names."

I believe that Ronald Reagan's feelings for Russian Jews might be traceable as far back as November 1928, when his devout Christian mother, head of the Missions Committee at their little church in Dixon, Illinois, brought in a Russian Jew named B. E. Kertchman. Kertchman spoke about persecution he faced. That empathy never left Reagan. Two decades later, in 1947, I discovered Reagan, as a young actor in Hollywood, a liberal Democrat, working with Eleanor Roosevelt to find safe haven for Europe's "Displaced Persons" (mostly Jews) after World War II.

Again, this is a striking contrast with Kissinger-Nixon, but it's more than that.

Reagan was seen as the ultimate Cold Warrior, giving no quarter to the "Evil Empire." Yet, his care for the everyday lives of human beings languishing in the USSR went largely unnoticed. That's too bad, as that concern is a moving testimony of where this president's heart guided him. That's something worth remembering as a nation remembers the life of Ronald Reagan this February 2011.

The Truth About Ronald Reagan's Mind - and Memory

Editor's note: This article first appeared at

Ron Reagan, son of the late president, continues to get attention because of speculation in his new book that his father may have begun experiencing Alzheimer's Disease during his presidency. Ron cites two examples where his father seemed confused or forgetful, one as early as 1984 and another from 1986.

Ron's speculation ignited a very strong response from his brother, Mike Reagan, who called Ron an "embarrassment."

The issue isn't going away, and is sure to be debated in the next two weeks leading to the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth on February 6.

We've been down this road before. This is not the first time such speculation was raised, only to be quickly struck down by Reagan's personal physicians, specialists, and experts on the disease.

As a biographer of Reagan, I've dealt with this question many times. It's a matter best left to the clinicians who closely inspected the president.

For the record, the actual diagnosis of the disease, made public by Reagan's moving handwritten letter, did not come until November 1994, nearly six years after he left the White House - not to mention two years after a wonderful (and quite lucid) Reagan speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Reagan was not in the throes of the disease until well after his presidency.

That said, there are perhaps some helpful observations I can add to this subject. I offer them as someone who has interviewed hundreds of people who knew and worked with Reagan and as someone who spent countless hours at the Reagan Library studying the gigantic Presidential Handwriting File, a very illuminating archive of letters, speeches, and other documents featuring Reagan's actual handwriting. I never encountered any evidence - on paper or from eyewitnesses - suggesting that the president was "losing it."

But rather than just say this, I'd like to offer a viewable example to readers: a March 1986 exchange between Reagan and Secretary of Education Bill Bennett regarding an education report. This example occurred during one of the exact years cited by Ron Reagan as an episode when his father seemed "bewildered."

As Bennett knew, Ronald Reagan's memory was not only good but exceptional. In fact, several of Reagan's closest advisers, two of whom dated back to the gubernatorial days in Sacramento, have told me that they believe Reagan had a photographic memory. Knowing that Reagan's 75-year-old brain remained sharp, Bennett confidently put Reagan on the spot in front of a group of educators in the East Room of the White House. Bennett asked the president if he recalled a verse from a certain poem. Here's a direct transcript from the official Presidential Papers:

Secretary Bennett: Mr. President, I was telling the audience before you came that memorization figures in this book fairly prominently, and I am told that you're the world champion memorizer. Do you recall something that starts "There are strange things done in the midnight sun. . ." ?

The President: " . . . by the men who moil for gold." [Laughter]
Secretary Bennett: "The Arctic trails have their secret tales . . ."
The President: ". . . that would make your blood run cold." [Laughter]
Secretary Bennett: I give up. I give up. I give up. Do you want to finish, Mr. President?
The President: I don't know whether in school they still read Robert W. Service but to just conclude that particular stanza, it would then be: "There are strange things" - No, we've done that. All right.
Secretary Bennett: "The North Lights have seen . . ."
The President: "The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see was that night in the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee."

This exchange doesn't strike me as evidence of an addled brain. This clip needs to be watched to be appreciated. Reagan had no notes, no TelePrompter - and no onset of Alzheimer's. I've seen innumerable examples like this over the years.

Nonetheless, this is an issue not likely to go away.

Reagan himself would have probably simply smiled and shrugged, perhaps with a gentle, "Well, there they go again. . . ."

Reagan and Alzheimer's: What the Public Doesn't Know About the 40th President

Editor's note: This article first appeared at

This February 6, 2011 marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. Reagan died June 5, 2004 at the ripe old age of 93. Ironically, throughout that long life, he had been a model of fitness. If not for Alzheimer's disease, it is quite possible we might be watching news clips of an elderly Reagan blowing out a bunch of candles on a huge birthday cake.

That Reagan lost his life to the scourge of Alzheimer's is, of course, well-known. The issue has re-emerged with the comments by his son, Ron, speculating that Reagan might have begun experiencing the disease earlier than disclosed, during his presidency even. That speculation is not new, and has been vigorously debated before, including by experts on the disease and Reagan's physicians. I'm not going to rehash the debate here.

What I would like to do, however, is use this as an opportunity to report something on Reagan and Alzheimer's that has been missed over the years. Indeed, less known were Reagan's quite significant, and rather moving, private actions, during his presidency, on behalf of those suffering the disease. As a Reagan biographer who spent several summers researching presidential papers at the Reagan Library, I swerved into these actions unexpectedly.

Remarkably, Reagan had been highly active in confronting Alzheimer's from the start of his presidency. He would make eight separate statements on the disease, averaging one for each year in the White House. In these, he called Alzheimer's "devastating," an "indiscriminate killer of mind and life."

His final presidential statement came November 5, 1988. It is chilling to read now, as it foretells Reagan's own condition in his final years, and given that it came precisely six years to the day (November 5, 1994) when Reagan would announce to the world that he himself had the disease,

Alzheimer's disease ranks among the most severe of afflictions, because it strips people of their memory and judgment and robs them of the essence of their personalities,

. . . explained Reagan.

As the brain progressively deteriorates, tasks familiar for a lifetime, such as tying a shoelace or making a bed, become bewildering. Spouses and children become strangers. Slowly, victims of the disease enter profound dementia.

That was Reagan himself in the end - robbed of his essence. It was an eerie harbinger of what was to come.

While those presidential statements fell through the cracks of history, less-known still, but quite poignant, was Reagan's behind-the-scenes correspondence with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of beautiful Hollywood star, Rita Hayworth. Hayworth was suffering a premature decline due to, of all things, Alzheimer's disease.

Reagan was concerned about Hayworth, who he had known since his days as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s. Tucked away in the Presidential Handwriting File at the Reagan Library are touching letters exchanged between Reagan and Yasmin Aga Khan.

The first was dated November 15, 1982, in which Khan thanked Reagan for signing a proclamation creating National Alzheimer's Awareness Week. She detailed her mother's condition and how it had early on damaged the actress's emotional well-being, leading to bouts with alcohol, which made her "very difficult" as a mother.

Reagan responded immediately. His two-page letter on White House stationary was dated November 19 - an impressive turnaround given major demands in the world at the time. The 40th president referenced his own parents, including his father's "very great drinking problem" and how his mother,

. . . bless her soul, continually told my brother and me that this was a sickness and that he could not help it, so we must not hate him but understand and love him.

Reagan said he was grateful that "today we have real knowledge of Alzheimer's disease," and hoped for a cure. He thanked Khan for her efforts: "God bless you for what you are doing. You will be in my prayers."

On May 14, 1987, Rita Hayworth died. The president telephoned Khan to offer condolences, and released a public statement expressing regret. Two months later, on July 28, Khan wrote to ask Reagan if he would be an honorary patron for the 1988 Rita Hayworth Gala, which had the goal of raising $1.5 million for Alzheimer's research. Not even a week later, Reagan responded, saying he would be "very pleased and honored. . . . Thanks for asking."

Rita Hayworth's case is just one example of President Reagan's concern, public and private, for this disease and its victims. Little did he know it would one day claim him, too.

The centennial of Reagan's birth brings all sorts of remembrances, from celebrations by conservative groups to symposia by academic centers and universities. These gatherings will discuss numerous aspects of Reagan's life and career, from the Cold War to tax cuts to Hollywood. And with Ron Reagan's recent comments, the role of Alzheimer's will be front and center. Alas, for Ronald Reagan, there was much more to that story. *

Read 3829 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 10:34
Paul Kengor

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Paul Kengor is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004), The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007), The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007) and The Communist — Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor (Threshold Editions / Mercury Ink 2012).

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