Reagan@100: Goodbyes

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

The 1992 Republican convention was a rotten experience for just about everyone there. A sour economy had doomed President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign, and the harsh publicity surrounding the event made the atmosphere even more depressing.  Sure, there was lots of cheering, but the whole thing felt forced and false, like a birthday party at a hospice.

On Monday of the convention, though, the gloom briefly lifted when Ronald Reagan spoke.  As a low-level staffer for the platform committee, I sat in the nosebleed section of the Astrodome.  Even from hundreds of feet away, people in our row could still feel the Reagan vibe. His gait was slower and his voice was thicker, but he was still the Gipper. 

In hindsight, two moments are poignant. When he joked about knowing Thomas Jefferson, the Jumbotron cut to a reaction shot of one especially joyful member of the audience:  my friend Paula Nowakowski, who would go on to become John Boehner’s chief of staff.  A year ago, she died unexpectedly at the age of 46.  In a Facebook tribute, I mentioned the reaction shot, and another friend of Paula’s soon found it and put it online:

Reagan normally ended evening speeches by saying, “Thank you, God bless you, and good night.”  This time, his closing was different: “My fellow Americans, on behalf of both of us, goodbye, and God bless each and every one of you, and God bless this country we love.”  Why “goodbye”?  He was aware of his advanced age, and perhaps he figured that he would not address another convention. Intentional or not, it was fitting.  Four years later, Mrs. Reagan addressed the convention in his behalf, talking about his struggle with Alzheimer’s.

There is comfort in believing that he is now in a better place. I like to think that he is still telling jokes and Paula is still laughing at them.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.