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How Ronald Reagan Taught Me My Most Unforgettable Political Lesson

American Rangers re-enact the scaling of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc June 5 as part of the commemoration ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the allied invasion (REUTERS/Charles Platiau).

Twenty-nine years ago—June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day—Ronald Reagan gave me an unforgettable tutorial in American politics.

I had just finished my second year as the issues director for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. While the tectonics of the race had been moving steadily in Reagan’s direction since the beginning of the year, we still had some prospects . . . or so I thought until his speech that day.

Reagan was the star, Peggy Noonan wrote the script, and Michael Deaver was the director. It was his finest hour. If there were an Oscar for best director of a political drama, Deaver would have won it that year. In fact, he might have retired it for good.

The setting Deaver chose and against which President Reagan stood was spectacular—atop the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, overlooking the deep blue of the Atlantic, framed by the lighter blue of the sky. Seated in front of the president were 62 survivors of one of World War Two’s most heroic episodes, when 225 Army Rangers climbed straight up the sheer cliffs in the face of machine guns and grenades raining down on them.

As I recall, a group of us had gathered in the Mondale campaign’s press room to watch the speech. There was dead silence as Reagan described the Rangers’ climb in vivid cinematic strokes. And then he reached the emotional climax:

“Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are of boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war.”

As Reagan uttered these words, the camera slowly pulled back to reveal the grey-haired survivors of this ordeal. I started crying. When I looked around the room, I realized that I wasn’t the only one. I said to myself, “This isn’t a fair fight. The man I’m working for honorably represents a great American political tradition. The man we’re working against represents the memory of America at its best.”

As Reagan viscerally understood, it was a past to which many Americans of the early 1980s, scarred by Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis, yearned to return. Time magazine’s Lance Morrow got to the heart of it—America’s mourning for “the moral clarity that has been lost, a sense of common purpose that has all but evaporated.”

As issues director, I was immersed in the rational, evidence-based, linear process of policy development. Reagan taught me that policy issues rest on something deeper—not only moral principle, but moral sentiment and shared memory, and that the ability to evoke those deeper things is the most powerful of all political forces. But this deep well is not—cannot be—the artifact of a speechwriter, however skilled. It must already exist, at least inchoately, to be summoned by politicians who understand it, at least intuitively, assisted by writers who can give it clarity.

Reagan taught me something else that day, although it took me years to understand what it was. A pure politics of nostalgia is inert. To be effective, memory must be mobilized in the service of the future.

Of course the president was trying to win reelection. But long after, when I read the text of his speech, I saw that he was after something more: using the memory of a glorious past to shore up the unity of the West against the Soviet Union and to maintain public support for the sacrifices needed to end the Cold War on terms favorable to the cause of liberty.

Reagan represented a generation for whom World War Two was living history, and therefore a usable past. The questions are inescapable: What is living history for us today? And what are the wellsprings of memory and sentiment from which aspiring leaders can draw to build support for a better, more united future?
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