Even at nearly 900 pages, Bob Spitz’s new biography of Ronald Reagan couldn’t include every detail of Reagan’s presidency. Even so, we were disappointed that “Reagan: An American Journey,” didn’t make room for a few words about Reagan’s speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. It’s an occasion that Louisiana Republicans of a certain age still remember with fondness.
Reagan spoke at the Superdome, where he was handing over the reins of the party to his vice-president, George Herbert Walker Bush, who was running to replace him. Reagan’s support for Bush meant a lot, Spitz notes, because after two terms — and despite setbacks like the Iran-Contra affair — the Gipper was still popular.
“The country’s hunger for Reagan’s inspirational leadership and gentle mirth overwhelmed any specific bad news,” Spitz notes. “He made people feel proud to be American. He embraced the handle Dr. Feelgood, which his critics hadn’t intended as a compliment, and his prescription to his patients was: resilience, hope, and faith. While accepting the nomination for president in 1980, Reagan had said, ‘More than anything else I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose.’ And to a majority of Americans he’d delivered on his promise.”
That sense of inspiration was evident in the Superdome on Aug. 15, 1988, as Reagan addressed GOP delegates.
“When people tell me that I became president on January 20th, 1981, I have to correct them,” Reagan told the audience. “You don’t become president of the United States. You are given temporary custody of an institution called the presidency, which belongs to our people. Having temporary custody of this office has been for me a sacred trust and an honor beyond words or measure.”
The speech also embodied Reagan’s trademark humor. In a nod to his advanced age, the president recalled his first Republican convention, with “Abraham Lincoln giving a speech that sent tingles down my spine.”
To revisit the speech is to remember a leadership style that, in today’s terms, can now seem as distant as Lincoln’s time. What one notices in Reagan’s rhetoric is his underlying sense of humility, his self-effacement, his sense of being but one player in the work of governance.
That lack of hubris and that gift for perspective are really lacking in our political culture right now. Spitz’s biography — and the memories it inspired of a brilliant night at the Superdome in 1988 — tell us what civility used to look like. It’s a reminder we need now more than ever.