Evasion of the body snatchers

Ken Blackwell Former Ohio Secretary of State
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Eleven years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, on the eve of America’s great centennial celebration, counterfeiters formed a plot to steal his body from its honored grave in Springfield, Illinois. They had plans to hold the body for ransom. The U.S. Secret Service was able, happily, to disrupt this ghoulish plot.

Today, we have a new ghoulish plot. Liberal writers are trying to steal the body of Ronald Reagan. They don’t want to hold it for ransom. Instead, they are vigorously telling us he wasn’t what we think he was.

The Washington Post recently carried a book review by David Baldacci. I see this prolific writer’s overflowing output in every airport bookstore. This time, however, Mr. Baldacci makes his debut as a historian and political commentator.

In the Post, Mr. Baldacci has high praise for Rawhide Down. “Rawhide” was the Secret Service’s code name for this excellent horseman. Ronald Reagan was the first president since TR who actually could ride well.

Baldacci’s review of a non-fiction book by reporter Del Quentin Wilber advances the idea that Ronald Reagan’s heroic conduct at the time of the assassination attempt on his life — now thirty years ago — was what really accounted for his “Teflon” presidency. His courage and humor, Quentin believes and Baldacci apparently concurs, is what really formed that indissoluble bond with the American people. “America loves its heroes.”

Indeed we do. And the Wilber book doubtless provides a wealth of information about a key episode in the Reagan presidency. As with most fiction, there has to be an element of truth to it. President Reagan himself acknowledged that the assassination attempt had given him a huge and unexpected bump in public approval. At the depths of the Iran-Contra scandal, when Americans for the first time seemed out of sorts with Ronald Reagan the man, he even joked: “I could always get myself shot again.”

The Wilber book provides fascinating behind-the-scenes reportage. David Gergen and Larry Speakes, for example, failed utterly to come up with cogent answers to anxious press inquiries about Reagan’s condition.

It was the faithful Reaganaut Lyn Nofziger who relayed to a worried nation some of the great jokes the stricken president had told. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” was Reagan’s first words to his first lady. Nofziger also relayed Reagan’s crack to the doctors at George Washington University Hospital who were working to save his life: “I hope all you fellas are Republicans.”

Wilber reports that Vice President George H.W. Bush’s flawless behavior at the time of the shooting got off to a rocky start. Frazzled White House aides could not get through to him in Texas on a secure phone line. They finally had to communicate with him via secure teletype transmission.

Interestingly, we learn that the crazed young man, Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, was a bi-partisan stalker of presidents. He apparently also had the hapless Jimmy Carter in his sights, planning to kill the president in Nashville in 1980. Police intercepted Hinckley at the airport with three revolvers, ammunition, and handcuffs.

Sounds like a good start for a David Baldacci fiction bestseller.

Police failed to delve more deeply into this disturbed young man’s background. If they had, they might have unearthed his journal in which he obsessed over how to make an impression on actress Jodie Foster. Today, of course, he might more harmlessly have taken to the pages of Facebook or even eHarmony.

What’s basically wrong with liberal attempts at stealing Reagan’s body is this: Reagan’s policies were essential to his political success with American voters. The economy came out of a two-decades-long slough. American leadership was recognized in the world. And Reagan appealed powerfully to millions of supporters of traditional values, especially those concerned for the right to life.

Baldacci and Wilber apparently forget that it was after Reagan’s recovery that the

New York Times could editorialize that his administration had about it “the stench of failure.” Liberals in 1982 and 1983 confidently expected to give Reagan a drubbing in the 1984 elections.

Yes, Reagan’s miraculous survival did create a deep and emotional bond with Americans. He seemed to dispel some kind of curse. After all, no other president had been hit by an assassin’s bullet and recovered.

We can easily disprove the liberals’ thesis that it was only Reagan’s “John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart all rolled into one” performance that explains his political success.

Just imagine if Hinckley had so grievously wounded Jimmy Carter.

Can anyone believe that that would have made 18% mortgage rates go away, forget “America held hostage” in Iran, chill out while lining up for gasoline, or learn to enjoy the era of limits and malaise? It’s time to reject this evasion of the body snatchers.

Ken Blackwell, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and is a Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council.