Remembering Reagan

I will never use this space to spout off about politics. But former President Ronald Reagan’s death makes me think of two important public ideas that seem to have been lost in recent times.

I never supported the policies of Ronald Reagan. In fact, I worked on the staff of the 1984 presidential campaign that opposed him. I was 23 years old, it was about my 23rd political campaign, and it was my last one. I swore off campaigns after that year because I didn’t believe politics gave people the sense of possibility they yearned for. Just a few years later, I started my present work.

Still, here’s the first idea I have in mind. I was always struck by how Ronald Reagan seemed to hold affection for public life. He valued his work; he was optimistic; he set out to do something – rather than just to oppose someone or something else. He cared about people, even if his policies, for some, seemed at odds with that notion.

USA Today reported this morning that “Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale hearkened back to a day when campaigns were more civilized. In the 1984 contest for the White House, challenger Mondale remembered Reagan as someone who aimed to ‘get elected with a strong majority of Americans that would allow him to unite the country and go in the direction he wanted to go.’”

We desperately miss that sense of affection for public life today. We are in need of it in the nation’s capital and in many communities. We can only find it within ourselves.

The second idea is that Reagan prompted enormous debate at the time. While many people remember his sense of optimism and charm, he presented an incredible clash of ideas with his opponents. I remember those fights well.

We miss real debate in this year’s presidential race – indeed, in much of public life today. This isn’t an academic concern; too many organizations have set themselves up merely to attack others in public life, rather than to build something in common.

So, let us mourn the death of a former US president. And let us recommit ourselves to two key ideas in public life that must be intertwined: exercising genuine, passionate debate, informed by a deep sense of affection for purpose in acting.

When we move toward these goals, we will regain a sense of possibility in public life.