EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the June 28, 2004, issue of National Review.
In January 1980 Ronald Reagan stumbled when George H. W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses. Reagan’s immediate target after his loss was the New Hampshire primary, but in those more spacious days he had weeks of cross-country campaigning to fill. In that interval, I followed him on a swing for National Review that ended up in St. Paul, Minn. He was giving his stump speech at some downtown hall–ethnic? Masonic?–and for the longest time he didn’t come to the stage. The band played “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” coolly. The sight of plastic boaters with campaign bumper stickers pasted on their crowns, atop the heads of people who are waiting, and waiting, to cheer, is one the most melancholy in the world.
I trust I will not shock the readers of this magazine, or the gods of journalistic objectivity, when I say that I was yearning for him to pull it out. His mighty effort to unseat Gerald Ford in 1976, a hair-raising alternation of wins and losses, had consumed the spring of my junior year in college. The 1980 campaign had been elaborately planned and funded; if he failed now, he would never run again (he was 69, after all). One of Minnesota’s Republican senators, elected after some fluke spat in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, finally introduced Reagan, lukewarmly. Then he appeared. I felt what I always felt at the beginning of every Reagan speech: Who is this guy?
Actors, one thinks, are fluent. They are not supposed to flub their lines (Now is the winter of our discount . . . discontent). But Reagan often made little word bobbles of this kind. His good looks and physicality had gone beyond paternal to being grand-paternal; his warm voice had become husky around the edges, and his manner could seem a tad old-hennish. But at the end of his speech, I felt what I always felt: I love him.
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