Reagan was a father who fed us French fries

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2004

I don’t remember a word he said. By the time my head dropped into a pillow that very night, I had forgotten his last sentence. I was 10, for goodness sakes.

Earlier that day, I stood among thousands who chanted: “Four more years!” I pinned a blue button on my shirt and even wore one of the silly, Styrofoam hats. But two decades ago, when President Ronald Reagan visited my hometown, his words mattered far less than my last baseball game or next girlfriend.

After the rally ended, I loaded into the back of a station wagon with a group of friends, superficially excited about the day’s events. We rode away from the rally, blabbering about how close we got to him and how many buttons we had snatched from the table.

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Then we asked for a hamburger.

The row of police cars and limousines parked outside McDonald’s excited most everyone in the car, me included. Sure, the chances of getting our hands on a Happy Meal diminished, but that didn’t matter anymore.

As expected, management locked the golden arches — probably at the behest of men with sunglasses and wires in their ears — but we did stand outside and look through the window as the President of the United States ate French fries in our town.

Funny, the things we remember. Arguably the greatest President of our country gave what I’m sure was a heart-moving speech, and all I remember is that he ate French fries?

Over the past week, I’ve watched the talk shows and documentaries about the Great Communicator. I’ve listened to nearly every staff member associated with President Reagan, turning up the volume when someone told a personal story about him.

For some reason, I keep going back to those French fries, and I think I know why.

As with any funeral service, there were tears shed Friday when the world bid Reagan a final good-bye. Nancy Reagan bowed at an occasional story. Former Vice President and Reagan’s successor, George Bush, struggled through a particular phrase.

Compared to most funerals, though, Reagan’s did not break our hearts. His was a celebration, both of achievement and eternal life. It should have been.

You see, celebration follows accomplishment, and if ever a man in the past century accomplished more than Ronald Reagan, we have been blinded, badly.

We know of the Cold War and how Reagan ended it. We know of the economy and how Reagan strengthened it. And yes, we know of national morale and how Reagan raised it.

What we must never forget are the French fries, and how Reagan ate them.

He didn’t arrange them on a China plate and eat them with a fork. He didn’t order an employee to place those French fries neatly in his mouth; nor did he ask someone to wipe his face clean.

Nope. He dumped them on a napkin, grabbed a handful at a time, and wiped the grease and ketchup from his own face.

President Reagan was no different from the rest of us, and we knew that.

President Reagan was one generation’s father, another generation’s grandfather, and he knew that.

He was a husband who equally shared love and authority with a wife, and Nancy Reagan knew that.

He was The Gipper, and Vice President George Bush knew that.

He was the President of the most powerful nation in the world, and Mikhail Gorbachev learned that.

Say what you will about political parties and public policy, but few men have ever understood their purpose better than Reagan understood his. Like that perfect father, Reagan knew how to balance discipline with love, direction with humility.

During one of the network talk shows this week, an analyst discussed Reagan’s greatest flaw as America’s leader.

“He never connected with minorities,” the analyst said.

Maybe in a style patterned after Reagan, I didn’t rush to a reaction. Instead, I thought about the point and came to a simple conclusion: Minorities eat French fries, too.

Though I never spoke a word to him, I’d bet a Big Mac that Reagan couldn’t see things any other way. He didn’t understand the word “minority” because, to him, we were all the same.

We were his kids.

We were his grandkids.

We were his country and, man, did he love us.

Sometimes, I wish I could remember what President Reagan said when I stood in the same room with him 20 years ago. Then again, maybe it’s not so big of a deal. He was, after all, a person who happened to eat French fries.

And as I think on it more, maybe he’s the reason I couldn’t remember a word of his speech. Like the protecting father he became, Ronald Reagan made it easier for us all to drop our heads into a pillow and sleep peacefully.

May he do so now.