By TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen Richard Nixon told America "I'm not a crook," everybody knew exactly what that meant. Less than nine months later, he was fleeing the White House in disgrace, with the nation's faith in its institutions shattered. Although Gerald Ford finished out Nixon's term, the next two presidents were America's way of righting the ship of state. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan injected just the right mix of honesty and optimism back into our national politics.
But storms have somehow sent the S.S. America in one big circle, and everything is starting to look very familiar. Here we are, three decades later, in what seems to be a Hollywood remake of that horror show, with the part of Richard Nixon being played by George W. Bush. America's faith in its institutions is again broken, which makes choosing the next president crucial -- whoever occupies the Oval Office next will have to put America back together again.
So it's no surprise that all the Republican candidates are linking themselves with Ronald Reagan -- nobody much cares for any of them so far, but everybody loves Reagan.
And why is that? Whatever Reagan did, it's resonating more than ever; in February, he was chosen as America's second-favorite president ever, after Abraham Lincoln, in a Gallup poll.
If anybody wants to take up the true mantle of Reagan, they should read The Reagan Diaries. One of only five presidents to have consistently kept a diary, the pages reveal Reagan as a leader who inspired us with optimism instead of subjugating us with fear.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Reagan Diaries is a "see the forest, not the trees" kind of book, as any given entry can read like a shopping list. But taken together, a clear picture emerges.
The first thing that strikes you is how little self-reflection he indulges in. He only writes a few paragraphs about being shot by John Hinckley in 1981. "Getting shot hurts," is how he sums it up.
I'm guessing, but I could see Bill Clinton spending at least a chapter navel-gazing about getting shot.
And that brings up the generational difference. You can't read The Reagan Diaries without sensing how times have changed. Reagan was born in 1911, so he lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Our recent Baby Boomer presidents never experienced such profound hardships, and it shows.
The hard times gave Reagan wisdom but also imbued him with an undying optimism: "I know in my heart that man is good," his grave marker reads.
Reagan also had great compassion for his fellow Americans. There are numerous cases in his diaries when he heard about a regular person either in trouble or having done something heroic, and he would pick up the phone and call. That impulse represents the kind of connectedness that got this country through the Depression -- something that's missing today.
But perhaps most striking to modern readers, against our current backdrop of questions about whether we need to talk to anybody else out in the world, is Reagan's constant, unrelenting diplomacy. It's non-stop -- with world leaders, members of Congress, his own advisors and even protestors.
"Tip O'Neill & amp; his leadership called me and with complete graciousness congratulated us on our win," he wrote on July 29, 1981, after the passage of his tax cuts. "Now we must make it work -- and we will."
Reagan loved sharing old Irish stories with Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who was both an opponent and friend; today our leaders just tell members of the other party to go you-know-what themselves.
Then, at a speech at Portland State University on Oct. 24, 1984, he wrote, "A small group of hecklers gave me a chance for a little repartee which went over big with the students." Today hecklers can't get within a mile of the president.
But most instructive for the big, fat pickle we're in today is his interaction with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose actual, functioning nuclear missiles were pointed right at us. Initially suspicious, Reagan didn't freeze "Gorby" (as he came to call him) out; instead he insisted on a series of face-to-face meetings. Familiarity bred trust, and history was made simply because two men talked. The threat of nuclear annihilation was averted without a shot being fired.
Reagan was tough, but he knew what war looked like, and that's why his presidency repudiates the Bush maxim that diplomacy is for wimps. Reagan helped to solve our Soviet problem, not make it worse.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course it's hard not to remember Reagan's many shortcomings, but he could talk his way out of just about anything. And that, unfortunately, is where the seeds were planted for today's mess. An actor by profession, Reagan was so good at communicating, every president since has wanted to emulate that part of his persona.
But for Reagan, his diaries argue, communication was only to get the truth out; he asked to go on TV when he felt the nation needed to hear him. Today our leaders' communication operations seem geared toward hiding the truth -- or distracting us from it. The political operatives took the wrong lesson from the Reagan years, and as a result our politics have devolved into a nasty, negative stew of confusion.
So I'd like to see us go backwards even from Reagan with our next president, back to Jimmy Carter, who told America to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater. Everybody laughed, but nobody's laughing now as oil is approaching $100 a barrel and our fighting men and women are dying in a gasoline-fueled war. Carter was right about energy independence, and we need that kind of honesty back in the White House.
Now if we could just couple Carter's honesty and Reagan's optimism, we would have just the candidate we need to survive the coming Bush hangover.