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The Gipper's Eulogies

As people make speeches about Reagan, it's good to remember how much stock he put into the eulogies he gave.

12:30 PM, Jun 10, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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TOM BROKAW and Dan Rather believe too much media attention has been heaped on Ronald Reagan after his death at 93 last weekend. And it's true Reagan, a modest man with much to be proud of, might have been embarrassed by so many glowing testimonials about him. But he was a strong believer in focusing public attention on the dead and especially in eulogies. How do we know this? Reagan said so.

In 1989, the year Reagan's presidency ended, he published a collection of his speeches entitled Speaking My Mind. Reagan personally selected the speeches and, interestingly, he left out all of his State of the Union addresses. But he included eight eulogies he delivered at memorial services or funerals. One is the speech Reagan gave in 1969 at the death of his friend, actor Robert Taylor.

Reagan prefaced the speeches with brief comments on the significance of each one. "I honestly believe eulogies have significance," he wrote about the Taylor speech. "I believe they are some of the most important speeches I've ever given. I don't mean because they changed the face of the nation in any way, but because it's a very great responsibility to capture the spirit of an individual and what he or she meant to the world . . . You have the power to sum up a human life. I've always taken this power quite seriously."

Indeed, the Reagan eulogies are revealing about those he praised--and about the former president himself. He said Taylor is remembered by million of moviegoers "with gratitude that in the darkened theater he never embarrassed them in front of their children." Reagan, of course, preferred movies from his decades in Hollywood to recent films, which he thought coarse and too sexually explicit.

Reagan's most famous eulogy honored the Challenger astronauts killed in 1986. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God,'" he said. In his preface to the eulogy, he recalled standing next to Jane Smith, widow of astronaut Michael Smith, at a memorial service in Houston a few days later. She gave Reagan the 3" x 5" card on which her husband had written and left on his dresser. "He wrote about the importance of the mission," Reagan said. "It was such a personal, generous gift that I didn't feel right keeping it. I made a copy . . . and gave her back the original."

Some of Reagan's eulogies are difficult to read without tearing up. In 1985, 248 soldiers of the 101st Airborne were killed in a plane crash in Newfoundland as they returned home for Christmas. At a memorial service at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Reagan offered a prayer. "Receive, O Lord, into your heavenly kingdom the men and women of the 101st Airborne, the men and women of the Screaming Eagles. They must be singing now, in their joy, flying higher than mere man can fly and as flights of angels take them to their rest. . . . They will never grow old. They will always be young. And we know one thing with every bit of our thinking: They are now in the arms of God."

At one memorial service--Reagan couldn't remember which one--he had a touching experience after he spoke. "Words do help, but so can simply going from one family to the next and offering personal condolences," he wrote in his introduction to the Fort Campbell eulogy. "Nancy and I were going from person to person trying to help with the grief and I came to a little boy. As I took his small hand, he said to me, 'Please bring my daddy home.' I cannot describe to you the anguish."

Reagan's eulogies are filled with astonishing flourishes. In 1987, in a service for sailors killed when the USS Stark was attacked in the Persian Gulf, he declared:

Because they were heroes, let us not forget this: That for all the lovely spring and summer days we will never share with them again, for every Thanksgiving and Christmas that will seem empty without them, there will be other moments, too, moments when we see the light of discovery in young eyes, eyes that see for the first time the world around them and know the sweep of history and wonder, "Why is there such a place as America, and how is it that such a precious gift is mine?" And we can answer them. We can answer them by telling of this day and those that we come to honor here.

What's striking about Reagan's eulogies of individuals is that he describes them in ways that have come to apply to him. I doubt that he had himself in mind, though, when he portrayed Robert Taylor this way: "Simple things he had, like honor and honesty, responsibility to those he worked for and who worked for him, standing up for what he believed, and yes, even a simple old-fashioned love for his country, and above all, an inner humility." Not many political leaders have humility, inner or outer. Reagan did.