Monday, June 7, 2004

Ronald Reagan — who endured an alcoholic father, a poor childhood, uncertain college prospects, a failed marriage, political isolation in Hollywood, a declining movie career, a failed presidential bid and an assassination attempt — found solace to help him endure life’s trials.

It was his faith.

Though he was criticized during his presidency for not attending church services regularly, Mr. Reagan’s unfailing faith in God — and what he knew in his soul was God’s plan for him — never wavered, and gave him strength to the end, according to biographers.

Paul Kengor, author of “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life,” said Mr. Reagan’s “Christian commitment” was the least-appreciated aspect about a man so many struggled to understand.

“He was very devout,” said Mr. Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “He got that from his mother.”

The one word that underpinned Mr. Reagan’s political philosophy — other than conservatism — was optimism, Mr. Kengor said. And Mr. Reagan believed that optimism was “God-given” to all people.

“The man even looked at Alzheimer’s optimistically,” Mr. Kengor said. “Reagan believed that Alzheimer’s is what God had chosen for him. It was God’s plan for how Reagan would die and he believed that we have no reason to question God.

“Reagan truly believed that even something that negative could be part of God’s plan,” he said. “We don’t quite appreciate how eternal his optimism was.”

One of Mr. Reagan’s favorite metaphors for describing the America he loved was a “shining city on a hill.”

This is a paraphrase of Matthew 5:14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” Using it as a metaphor for America, Mr. Reagan cited Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon before the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The “shining city on a hill” metaphor, as much as anything, revealed Mr. Reagan’s “fundamental outlook on reality,” said Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.”

Mr. Robinson spoke to Judge William P. Clark — a former Reagan national security adviser and Mr. Reagan’s chief of staff when he was governor of California — to “ask not about Reagan’s policies, but about his interior life.”

Judge Clark — whom official Reagan biographer Edmund Morris considered “the man spiritually closest to Ronald Reagan” — told Mr. Robinson that the former president was “a man of prayer.”

And his favorite setting for speaking to God was the outdoors.

“He didn’t need a church to pray in,” Judge Clark explained in Mr. Robinson’s book. “He referred to his ranch as an open cathedral with oak trees for walls.”

On trail rides, the president and Judge Clark would often recite the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which opens: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.”

“Sometimes, the president would look around and say, ‘What a wonderful place for prayer,’” Judge Clark said. “And sometimes, he’d just look up at the sky and say, ‘Glory to God.’”

While writing his book, Mr. Robinson — who was a speechwriter for Mr. Reagan — noted in his personal journal a scene that kept “coming to mind” as he reflected on Judge Clark’s story.

“Ronald Reagan is on horseback, riding along the exposed ridge at the southwestern corner of his ranch,” wrote Mr. Robinson, who shared this part of his journal with National Review Online. “When he reaches the high point where the helicopter pad once stood, he reins in his mount.

“He gazes up at the enormous vault of the sky. He feels the rushing wind against his face. He looks east, following the shape of the land as it tumbles down and away, spreading to form the green bowl of the Santa Ynez Valley. Then he shifts in his saddle to look west, taking in the endless, dazzling ocean, the Channel Islands misty in the distance.

“And then he whispers, ‘Glory to God.’”

Mr. Reagan’s faith enabled him to deal with adversity.

“Whatever life pushed at you, fundamentally, it was good,” Mr. Robinson said last night. “His father was a drunk. His first marriage broke up. His career as a movie actor, that he loved, ran down like a clock after the war. And 70 days after taking office, he was shot.”

“He had a kind of easy warmth, and you’d think he was lucky all his life, but that’s not the case at all. He was someone who understood how to take the bad in life and find good in it,” he said.

“To see this exuberant and fundamentally light-hearted person who had achieved the highest office in the land and had transformed the world — it took me months to get used to the idea,” Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Reagan’s mother died in 1962 of what the family called “senility,” but what today is recognized as Alzheimer’s disease. Yet Mr. Reagan told friends that his mother’s death was “a step through an eternal window — to that rainbow waiting around the bend.”

“How we die is God’s business,” Mr. Reagan told his daughter Patti, believing that it is man’s duty to accept it.

As a 17-year-old, Mr. Kengor notes, the man still known to friends as “Dutch” wrote a poem called “Life.”

Mr. Kengor said he was touched by this now-revealing excerpt:

“Why does sorrow drench us

When our fellow passes on?

He’s just exchanged life’s dreary dirge

For life’s eternal song”

All of this explains, Mr. Kengor said, how “the eternal optimist” could tell the world that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s in a farewell letter in November 1994, yet be so positive even as the disease was taking him “into the sunset.”

“When the Lord calls me home,” Mr. Reagan wrote, “I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”

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