Dallas, TX – It was with a particular sense of sadness that I heard about President Reagan's death this weekend. As someone who has a family member who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, I can understand how difficult the last few years must have been for his family, and the sense of relief that he is no longer suffering mixed with the grief that comes with any death. My heart almost broke when I saw the film from California of Mrs. Reagan placing her head on her husband's casket, then being comforted by her daughter, the daughter who always seemed to be at odds with her mother. Theirs is a personal loss. But I think for our nation, something else has passed away, civility in government.
The first vote I ever cast in an election was for President Reagan in 1984. I was 18 years old and was Republican through and through. Over the years I have moved away from the Republican Party to the point that today I am probably the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan. Of course, I don't quite feel so bad about moving away from the Republican Party to become a liberal. Many in Reagan's own party have moved away from the things he believed in, such as not speaking ill of another Republican.
One of President Reagan's strengths was his ability to make us believe we lived in the greatest country on earth. Through the sheer sense of his love for our country and his optimism, he was able to stem the malaise that had infected us in the late 1970's. Yes, we were looking for someone to uplift us, but only someone with Reagan's confidence and ability to communicate could have actually led us out of the doldrums. Reagan's vision of a "shining city on a hill" showed us what America could be, rather than pandering to our fears of what America might become. The first chink in the wall around the shining city was then Vice-President Bush's Willie Horton ads in the 1988 campaign. While Reagan dealt in hope and confidence, the first President Bush dealt in fear and doubt. Reagan showed us a glimpse of the best we can be; today we seem to only see the worst we might become should we vote incorrectly.
It has struck me in listening to people who were in the Reagan administration how President Reagan and then Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill interacted. By all accounts, they would argue like cats and dogs about policy, rarely agreeing on anything, but at the end of the day they would sit around and tell Irish stories. This type of civility is virtually non-existent in Washington today. I think when we demonize the other side, we make them less than human, and thereby diminish ourselves in the process. I, for one, want to stop demonizing Republicans, thinking to myself that they are the Great Satans of American politics, and try to see their humanity.
I think the best way America can honor President Reagan would not be to name buildings or airports after him; those are superficial tributes; but to remember that we live in the greatest country on earth and that despite our political and ideological differences, we are all in this democracy experiment together. We may be liberals or conservatives, Republican or Democrat or even Socialist, but we're all Americans and we all live in the shining city, and we all must work to make it the best it can be.
Stephen Whitley is a writer from Dallas.