Ronald Reagan’s Rainbow
could Reagan, obviously knowledgeable of Alzheimer's, describe
the onset of his disease as a coming sunset? The answer was
Reagan's secret weapon: his optimism. He called it an eternal
optimism, a "God-given optimism."
Ronald Reagan was a man who had it all. It is difficult to identify an
American who lived a fuller, or greater, life — what he understatedly
called "An American Life." In nearly everything he did, Reagan succeeded
wildly. When he left his parents' home in 1932, he landed a coveted job
in radio. Then came the movies and television, in the heyday of each
medium. In the 1930s, when most of America suffered, Reagan soared. By
the 1940s, he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood and
received more fan mail than any actor at Warner Brothers except Errol
Flynn. His hosting of the number-one rated television show GE Theatre
from 1954 to 1962 made him one of the most recognized names in America.
Of course, after that, he entered politics and twice won
the governorship of the nation's largest state and the presidency of the
world's most powerful nation. And I'm certain that his epitaph will be
that he was the president who won the Cold War.
Where did this record of achievement begin? It started with humble
origins: at the Rock River at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois, where a
teenage Reagan lifeguarded seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day,
for seven summers. He was the rock at the Rock River, always watching.
He saved the lives of 77 people there: "One of the proudest statistics
of my life," he said later. Saving a drowning victim is not easy under
any circumstance, but it was especially difficult in the treacherous
Rock River, where the swirling water is so deep and murky that swimming
there today has long been banned.
Still, the job was a labor of love for Reagan. "My beloved lifeguarding,"
he later called it. Even when Alzheimer's meant he couldn't recognize
his closest friends when they visited him in his Los Angeles office in
the 1990s, Reagan could point to the painting on his wall, a colorful
illustration of the spot where he patrolled the Rock River, and
On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan handwrote a letter informing the
world that Alzheimer's disease was riding him into "the sunset of my
life." That choice of words was astonishing: Alzheimer's is a horrific
disease that robs memories. In just a few years, Reagan wouldn't even
remember the White House.
How could he refer to that impending doom as the sunset
of his life? Was he ignorant of the disease? Not at all. As president,
Reagan made eight separate statements on Alzheimer's — an average of one
for each year in the White House. It is chilling to read those words
Alzheimer's, said Reagan, is an "indiscriminate killer
of mind and life" — a "devastating" sickness that "deprives its victims
of the opportunity to enjoy life." It "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," reported Reagan, "victims of the disease
enter profound dementia."
Reagan had unwittingly forecast his own demise.
So, how could Reagan, obviously knowledgeable of Alzheimer's, describe
the onset of his disease as a coming sunset? I've watched sunsets on the
California coast, indeed from the very "Ranch in the Sky" that Reagan
did. The answer was Reagan's secret weapon: his optimism. He called it
an eternal optimism, a "God-given optimism."
He first discovered that gift through his mother, Nelle Reagan, who
(along with Nancy) was the most important person in his life. Nelle
instilled in her son the Christian faith so fundamental to his very
being. She taught him that the twists and turns in the road are there
for a reason. The bad things are part of "God's plan" for the good.
There is a rainbow waiting around the bend. God, Reagan reasoned, was in
control and worked everything for the best.
Reagan preached this theology in his memoirs and in countless private
letters that today sit in the Reagan Library. It became a kind of grief
ministry. He would write to a widow: It's a tragedy that your husband
died and I write to send my deepest condolences; if it's any comfort,
God has a plan. ...
In 1962, the woman who shared such thinking with Reagan
died of what the family called "senility;" what we today would likely
diagnose as Alzheimer's. Yet, Reagan remained optimistic. His mother's
death, he told friends, was a step through an eternal window — to that
rainbow waiting around the bend.
"How we die is God's business," Reagan told his daughter
Patti. Our duty is to accept it. As a 17-year-old, he wrote a poem
called "Life." Here is a revealing excerpt:
sorrow drench us
When our fellow passes on?
He's just exchanged life's dreary dirge
For an eternal life of song.
this explains how the eternal optimist, in that November 1994 letter,
could be positive even as Alzheimer's was crowding in, about to cast his
mind into oblivion.
telling that in that brief letter to the American people, Ronald Reagan
mentioned God and faith four times. "When the Lord calls me home," he
wrote, "I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and
eternal optimism for its future."
Since that goodbye, it has been an unpleasant 10 years for a man whose
life was so richly blessed; he enjoyed precious few sunsets. Now, at
last, Ronald Reagan can rest in peace. Enjoy that rainbow, Mr.
Paul Kengor. "Ronald Reagan’s Rainbow." Catholic Educator's
Resource Center (June 11, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove
City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow with the
Institution. He is the author of
God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life, and the best selling
God and Ronald Reagan, He is co-editor, along with Peter
Assessing the Reagan Presidency (Rowman-Littlefield, 2005).
Paul Kengor is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource
Center. Contact Kengor at
Copyright © 2004