- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

"I'm grateful to God for blessing me with a good life and a long one." So said a 77-year-old Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention in New Orleans on Aug. 15, 1988.

It has indeed been a wonderful life for Mr. Reagan. Initially, he hoped for no more than a management job at Montgomery Ward. Instead, he found success first in radio, followed by Hollywood, and then television all in their heyday.

Entering politics, he won the California governorship twice in landslides, as he did the presidency the last, in 1984, by a margin of 525-13 in the Electoral College, sweeping 49 of 50 states. There was no need to recount Florida.

All this, and yet his fondest memory was being a lifeguard at Rock River in Dixon, Ill., where as a teen-ager he rescued 77 persons from swirling, dark water. One can hardly imagine a better script. Mr. Reagan was right it had been a good life. It has also been a long one.

When our 40th president made that remark in August 1988, he may not have expected that he had at least another 14 years to go. Had he known, he would have thrilled at the image of he and Nancy spending their final years in cozy strolls around the lake he built at his ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains. He might have envisioned an idyllic row around the lake in the canoe he gave Nancy on her birthday years ago, which he christened the TruLuv.

Instead, Ronald Reagan is spending his final years in oblivion. Nancy is at his side holding his hand as his caretaker. It's a tragedy. Sometimes the only thing an elderly person has is memories. Mr. Reagan does not. A lifetime of amazing memories have been robbed by an enemy every bit as evil as the Soviet empire Alzheimer's. The Soviets could jail you and take your freedoms. But they couldn't take your memories. Mr. Reagan would daringly take on the Soviets and try to kill their communist empire, and win. But Alzheimer's is a battle he can't win, a foe he can't defeat.

Long before it took him, Mr. Reagan understood this scourge. Somewhat eerily, he made no less than eight separate statements on Alzheimer's as president, beginning in November 1982. It is chilling to read those words today.

Alzheimer's, said Mr. Reagan, is an "indiscriminate killer of mind and life" a "devastating" disease that "deprives its victims of the opportunity to enjoy life." It "takes a serious toll" on "the many families who devote themselves to the care of the afflicted loved ones who no longer can help themselves." In his final presidential statement on the disease, made Nov. 5, 1988, he spoke words that could describe his own condition today: "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. 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."

What seems especially cruel about Mr. Reagan's case is this: In the time he has slipped away, there has been an astonishing reappraisal of him by historians.

In a 1999 survey of presidential scholars by C-SPAN, Mr. Reagan ranked the 11th-best president ever. He placed fourth-best among all chief executives ever in the category of "public persuasion," behind only FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.

In a 2000 survey of 78 mainstream scholars, done by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, Mr. Reagan rated eighth-best president in history, reaching the "near great" category.

Aside from polls, there are pages upon pages of positive appraisals from top presidential scholars and historians names like David McCullough, John Lewis Gaddis, Robert Dallek, Richard Neustadt, James Billington, and more.

For Mr. Reagan's legacy, this is significant. Regrettably, this post-presidential verdict came after his mind could comprehend it. Still, the eternal optimist was never worried. When asked how history would remember him, he was always optimistic. His optimism, like his life as a whole, was also a blessing for which he said he was grateful to God. He called it a "God-given optimism," based on "my strong faith in God," which he got from his mom, Nelle. In an article he wrote in his late 30s, he finished with a two-verse quote from a poem: "God's in His Heaven, All's right with the world."

That thinking has carried Mr. Reagan throughout that good, and long, life. Today, he turns 91. He has lived longer than any American president.

Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College and author of the upcoming book "God, Reagan, and the Soviet Empire."

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