The Post-Presidential Reagan You Never Knew

Ben Elliott Director of White House Speechwriting, 1983-1986
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The history of Ronald Reagan’s life would be incomplete without a clear understanding of his final years after leaving the White House in 1989. This is the subject of leading Reagan biographer Craig Shirley’s splendid new book, Last Act. Building his narrative around the historic week of the President’s passing – from the day of his death, Saturday, June 5, 2004 through his burial on June 12 – Shirley skillfully weaves in key events from the President’s life and their indelible impact on people and history.  

The emerging storyline highlights a stark and unbridgeable chasm between two Americas: the citizenry who “got” Ronald Reagan and shared his patriotism and passion for America, and the elites who did not. Indeed, as Shirley documents, the latter never stopped trying to disparage and defeat him, both in life and in death. Yet, Reagan’s courage, wisdom, generosity, and integrity were so strong, and his following so loyal and large, that he succeeded and his critics failed — again and again.  

At the outset of Last Act, Shirley reacquaints readers with the essence of America’s 40th President. He takes us back to the afternoon of November 5, 1994 — where we relive the moment Reagan received his death sentence, the news that he was stricken with Alzheimer’s. Fred Ryan, the Reagans’ principal aide, recalls that, far from uttering a single word of fear or of self-pity, the President’s first and only thoughts were toward others. So he immediately went to his desk to compose his brave and beautiful farewell letter read round the world announcing his affliction.

With his own pen, Reagan writes that he believes it is important to share his news with us, the American people, in hopes of promoting greater awareness of this condition, and encouraging a clearer understanding of the individuals and families affected by the disease. He conveys his sorrow that he cannot spare Nancy from this painful experience. And, he closes by thanking the nation for the honor of allowing him to serve as our President, by expressing his greatest love for our country, as well as his eternal optimism that, while he is moving into the sunset of his life, for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.     

This magnificence of character is a central theme of Last Act. Shirley repeatedly offers examples and instances as compelling reminders of why people everywhere revered Reagan (and still do!), rallied to his defense, and remember him with deep respect, affection, and love.  

As Shirley recounts, this was the young man who, when his black Eureka teammate was rejected from a “whites only” hotel in 1930, took him and another football teammate to his home, where his family warmly welcomed them.

This was the President who intervened in 1985 to help a one-year old boy, Ryan Osterbloom, receive a liver transplant. Ryan’s mother, Karen Osterbloom said, “I owe my son’s life to him.”

This was the committed Christian who sought a meeting with John Hinckley in 1983 to offer kindness and forgiveness to his would be assassin.  

And, this was the liberator whom Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky sought to thank and honor when he requested a seat in the National Cathedral at Reagan’s memorial service. Sharansky, who was not on the invitation list, said, “I wanted to be there. The President saved my life. I wouldn’t be alive if it were not for Ronald Reagan.”

For millions of people, Reagan personified what they believed was truly good, great and heroic about America. They also knew their leader by his works: they’d reaped the benefits of inflation vanquished; ridden the rising waves of new jobs and opportunities in an economy revived and, enjoyed a world freed from the grip of a cruel and evil empire.  

Little wonder then, that news of Reagan’s death on June 5, 2004, triggered dramatically different responses. As Shirley carefully documents, most in the media — wire services, networks, cable and print — as well as leaders in academia greeted news of Reagan’s death with personal attacks. Calling him “glib,” “doctrinaire,” “uninformed,“ and “a mere actor,” they virtually exploded in their condemnation of his presidency. However, for their part, the American people began turning out in increasingly large numbers to express — silently, visibly and vocally — their support and solidarity with Ronald Reagan.

In the week that followed, the drama played out. Craig Shirley leads us through each stage of “the plan” that Nancy Reagan and the President’s trusted inner circle had prepared for “Rawhide’s” final journey – from the Reagan residence in Bel Air to the funeral home and the Reagan Library, where citizens paid their respects; followed by his last flight to Washington to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol in the same spot used for Abraham Lincoln and JFK; then to the National Cathedral for his memorial service and, finally, home to Simi Valley for his burial.

During those seven days, the world watched transfixed. Each day, crowds grew. At each stage, thousands more lined highways, waved flags, kept all night vigils, offered flowers, and openly wept while whispering prayers and last words of gratitude and goodbyes. As the people spoke, as the country embraced Nancy Reagan, as Margaret Thatcher eulogized her dear partner and friend, and as more and more other foreign leaders and respected scholars like Richard Neustadt and John Patrick Diggins stepped forward to offer tributes – the power of a nation united prevailed. The shrill voices faded into the background.  

Craig Shirley masterfully captures each moment and event. He also enriches his story with a seemingly inexhaustible treasure of information about the history of our presidents and past. These informative and fascinating vignettes are worthy reading for themselves. Nevertheless, the truly wonderful and enduring contribution of Last Act is its message of hope and optimism: a great leader became a shining light of inspiration in the hearts of his countrymen – and, despite all the forces marshaled against him, he triumphed, overwhelming his enemies and detractors with the power of his light and his love.

That triumph included the greatest legacy any president could ever achieve. He left both his country and the world safer, freer and better.