I didn't know Nancy Reagan, but I know something of the fertile soil that produced the love of her life, the man whose legacy and health she fiercely nurtured and guarded — President Ronald Reagan. I grew up on a farm 15 minutes from Tampico, Ill., where Reagan was born in a small apartment above a bakery. In fact, the first article I was paid to write — $35 plus expenses! — explained how the tiny town reacted to his election and inauguration 35 years ago.
Sadly, with the former first lady's passing over the weekend, the last direct tie to the Party of Reagan is gone. It is doubtful the Reagans would even recognize the party that so often invokes the family name. Whether you agree with some, all or very few of the policies of the Reagan White House, no one can deny that President and Mrs. Reagan defined "presidential" with an undying dignity that spoke to their reverence for the office. "Dignity" is not the word that captures the essence of this year's GOP presidential campaign. And President Reagan's eternal optimism is absolutely lost on candidates who keep asserting that America is always losing.
Famed Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan perfectly captured the problem Saturday in her Wall Street Journal column headlined, "The Republican Party Is Shattering." She wrote, in part, that in refusing to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon, the GOP establishment's "denial is self-indicting. They couldn't see his appeal because they had no idea how their own people were experiencing America. I have been thinking a lot about establishments and elites. A central purpose of both, a prime responsibility, is to understand those who are not establishment and elite and look out for them, take care of them. Not in a government-from-on-high way, not with an air of noblesse oblige, but in a way that is respectfully attentive to the facts of their lives. You have a responsibility when you lead not to offend needlessly, not to impose realities you yourself can buy your way out of. You don't privately make fun of people as knuckle-draggers, victims of teachers union educations, low-information voters. We had a low-information elite."
Reagan, often criticized as simplistic in his world view, understood some fundamentals better than almost anyone else — and one of them was to have faith in mankind's basic humanity. He knew the hopes, fears and aspirations of small-town and Main Street America.
Though Reagan was of my parents' generation, not my own, I understood his values. When I was a kid, if a farmer was laid up, neighboring farmers would show up with tractors and plows and till his fields. Yes, they believed in Social Security and many government aid programs, but they also believed that a community helps its own. They knew it was the right thing to do. Reagan understood this America and knew that people want to harbor hope, not anger. Are today's Republican presidential candidates even listening?
Jim Verhulst is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.