EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appeared in the April 17, 1981, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
Ronald Reagan has exorcised the national nightmare. He looked it in the eye and cracked some jokes. His own sanity was overwhelming, and the baggy, neurotic devils of self-hatred slunk back into the shadows. We are not, repeat not, a sick society, Reagan told us with his jokes. His own behavior provided an exemplary metaphor. We cannot be defeated, at home or abroad, if we refuse to be defeated.
”Honey, I forgot to duck,” he said when he first saw his wife. Distraught, she was reassured. “Who’s minding the store?” he asked his assembled aides, reassuring them too–and also reminding them that there is a store which they must mind. As he went into the operating room he quipped to the surgeons, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” (One of the physicians–as reported by the magnificent Dr. Dennis O’Leary, hospital spokesman–responded with answering style: “Today everyone is a Republican.”) And when Reagan came out of surgery he once again reassured us with a joke: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
Reagan knew with his utterly sure instinct that on Monday afternoon the nation itself had once again been wounded psychically. Suddenly, in a psychic explosion, all of those old images burst again into the national consciousness, magnified by television, turned into terrible metaphors. Kennedy in the open car. Ruby and Oswald. King in Memphis. Funeral trains. Bobby in Los Angeles. Squeaky Fromme. The Moore woman. Hours and hours of TV coverage. Once again, this time, the idiot chorus began to warm up. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who seems intent these days on turning himself into a walking banality, intoned that we are a sick society. Dan Rather, who might as well have been nude on CBS-TV, all but fantasized a coup by Al Haig, blah, blah, blah.
With his jokes and his courage and his sanity Reagan said in effect, “Cut it out, boys. Grow up.” He quipped that the shooting had ruined his favorite suit. Surrounded by squads of physicians, he said that if he’d had this much attention in Hollywood he might have stayed there.
Reagan did not have to say so directly, and indeed he made his point more powerfully by making us say it ourselves: The United States is the most stable republic in the history of the world. It was thus designed by its founders. Four of its Presidents have been killed in office, and others have been the targets of assassins. But all transitions have been remarkably peaceful and orderly. The great ship of the Republic sails on through all seas, however stormy. It cannot be sunk by a .22 slug.
The day after surgery, the President signed a bill eliminating an increase in dairy price supports. The Reagan revolution rolls forward, picking up momentum. Runaway legal services to be cut back. Crazy requirements for ramps and lifts for wheelchairs canceled. A more balanced policy toward southern Africa. A larger role for private initiative in park lands. A growing national consensus, now acknowledged to be irresistible, for across-the-board budget cuts. We have the momentum, the President was telling us by his cool, steady behavior. Let us not be distracted.
In a single afternoon, as we say, Ronald Reagan exorcised what might be called the “Kennedy nightmare,” the view that absurdity controls our destiny. He proved that a physical wound need not be a spiritual wound, and from his bed in the George Washington University Hospital he reminded America of what it actually is. We cannot remember when an American statesman has so naturally exhibited the virtue of grace under pressure.