WASHINGTON – Oh, Reagan where art thou?
The 40th president is in the hearts and minds of his loyal admirers. As of Tuesday’s grand opening, he’s omnipresent at the new Washington branch of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. He was in the remarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., And even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., At a bipartisan celebration dinner following the ribbon- cutting. And he was the inspiration for the Freedom Award given to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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The unspoken question: Where is Reagan today in the Republican Party – or anywhere American politics?
“We can’t just sit back and say ‘Oh, those were the days,'” speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan said in her keynote address. “We recognize that while the past was beautiful, we can’t live in it. We live in today. We live in the right now. You can get trapped in the hazy glow of nostalgia, but life has one direction – and that is forward.”
The America of 2022, she warned, is very different from the country that shaped Reagan: “If you spend your time saying every Reagan solution applies to today’s problems – every one of them – then you are not a loyalist, you are a fool. Ronald Reagan respected reality, and reality is the world around us right now. “
That reality includes Donald Trump, an insurrection and bitter battles on Capitol Hill, including this week’s public hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack – none of which were mentioned Tuesday night. But that wasn’t really the focus of the evening or the 160 dinner guests at the St. Regis Hotel.
“What’s happening here is a reminder of how effective the party was, what an effective leader of the conservative moment he was, how it unleashed a generation of engagement – young people like me and people in this room who got involved in Republican politics because of the example of Ronald Reagan, “said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, before the dinner. “It’s a reminder that it can happen again. We don’t have to move in a direction that is unproductive, unhelpful and unhealthy for the country.”
It’s the next generation that the newly renovated marble-clad space on 16th Street NW is not far from the White House – an outpost of Reagan’s California library and foundation – hopes to attract and inspire.
“Reagan continues to be – and I mean this with great humility and respect – the best brand in conservative politics, Republican politics and possibly American politics,” said Roger Zakheim, the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, in an interview before the dinner. “That gives tremendous opportunity and responsibility because we use that to engage people who might not actually know who Reagan is.”
What that means in tangible terms is unclear. “Every time I walk through the library, there is a sense of uplift, a positive that comes from Reagan the person and also his agenda,” said Mac Thornberry, a former congressman from Texas who worked in the Reagan administration. “I do think that is something that is missing from politics these days, frankly, in both parties: hopeful, ‘we can be better,’ ‘let’s work on it together’ attitude.”
That bipartisan spirit was on full display at the White House on Monday, when first lady Jill Biden unveiled the Postal Service’s new Nancy Reagan forever first-class stamp. “She understood that the role of first lady came with inherent pitfalls and scrutiny, yet she found the humanity in it all,” Biden said in her remarks. “We have to learn from those we don’t understand, to reach across the divide and find common ground, because that’s where the foundation of our future must be laid.”
Tuesday evening’s program began with a toast by trustee Ann Korologos: “The character of Ronald Reagan is what made him a great president and why he is ranked among the best. He was a great leader because he was a good person.”
The congressional leaders swept in to deliver brief remarks and swept out just as quickly – but it was a testament to Reagan’s legacy that they all made the effort to address this small gathering.
McConnell focused on Reagan’s impact: “His principles, his commitments and his character did not just remake our conservative movement, they changed the very foundation of our politics and our government. But even principles that are correct do not pass themselves on automatically. Even truths that are self-evident are not self-teaching. ” Which is why McConnell said he was “thrilled” that the institute had a foothold in the nation’s capital.
Pelosi turned her attention to the personal, saying she took great pride in her fellow Californian’s patriotism and his optimism, as well as his statue in the Capitol, and lauded Nancy Reagan as “half of the great American love story.”
“It might come as a surprise to some of you that the president I quote most often is President Reagan,” she told the crowd. “The good humor of our president was really a tonic for the nation … the gentleman that he was.”
McCarthy, a vocal devotee of Reagan, was the last member of Congress to speak and took a sharp curve with a partisan speech comparing Jimmy Carter’s America to Biden’s – inflation, high gas prices, baby formula shortages. “I believe if Ronald Reagan were here today, he might say it’s deja vu all over again.” The man who would probably be a speaker if the Republicans win the House in November concluded with this: “Ronald Reagan told us it was the responsibility of each generation to keep our freedoms. … I think 154 days from now, that will come. “
His remarks caused raised eyebrows around the room and whispered critiques for such pointed remarks during a celebration of civility and cooperation. Zakheim said the minority leader was invited to speak as part of a broad spectrum of debate and engagement. “When it comes to democratically elected members of Congress, we’ve focused on facilitating the conversation and building a stage that really enhances, I think, the civic life of this country.”
The evening ended with the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, which went to Ukraine’s Zelensky and was accepted by Ambassador Oksana Markarova. It was introduced by Fred Ryan, chairman of the board of trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute (and publisher of The Washington Post). Zelensky received the award for “his courageous fight against tyranny and for his indomitable stance for freedom and democracy.”
“The greatest leader, President Reagan once said, is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things,” Markarova said. “He is the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.”
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