Recalling the Gipper’s basic decency—during the least inspiring election in generations.
Reagan was insulted plenty of times over the course of his career, burned in effigy, sworn against, cursed and more—but in each instance, he turned away the invective with a smile and a quip. He was tough on issues, but rarely people, and certainly not personally. He wasn’t mean and didn’t engage in ad hominem attacks.
Reagan did call out extremists in the conservative ranks. He supported William F. Buckley Jr., who led the purge of the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society and spoke out against anti-Semitic elements in the conservative moment. He opposed the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure aimed at banning homosexuals and gay-rights supporters from working at public schools.
Reagan believed in the politics of addition, not subtraction. He looked for ways to add to his support by exuding optimism and preaching growth policies. He wanted to unify, not divide. At the Detroit Republican Convention in 1980, he made an open appeal to Democrats and Independents to join his “community of shared values.” That night, he also cited Franklin Roosevelt—to a hall full of Republicans.
This wasn’t some campaign facade that Reagan had acquired for political reasons. He had always had it. In his famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan paraphrased the admonition that Barry Goldwater had given to his own son: “There is no foundation like the rock of honesty and fairness, and when you begin to build your life on that rock, with the cement of the faith in God that you have, then you have a real start.”
In one of his final public speeches, at the 1992 Republican convention, Reagan said that he hoped history “will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears. To your confidence rather than your doubts.” He undoubtedly did.
Mr. Shirley is a Reagan biographer and the visiting Reagan scholar at Eureka College. His newest book, “Reagan Rising,” is due out in March 2017 from HarperCollins. Mr. Donatelli worked on all of Reagan’s presidential campaigns and was the political director in the Reagan White House.