I didn't. I was at work on another volume of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and had reason enough to keep my distance. Ironia ironorum, that I of all people should be charged with rescuing the old Lifeguard from the chill current of history!
Nine years later, however, I found myself literally escorting him back to his origins in Tampico, Illinois. He was President no longer, and had been seized by a sudden, senescent desire to visit, for the first time since 1911, what was now grandly called the Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum. I walked down Main Street with him and Nancy, feeling transcendentally strange. An odd, Dantesque reversal of roles had occurred, as if I were now the leader rather than the led.
"Mr. President," I said, "you don't have to pretend you remember this place. You were only three months old when your parents checked out of number 111."
"Yes. We went to live over the store where my father worked. H. C. Pitney's General Store."
"No, that was in 1919, when you returned here from Monmouth. In May 1911, the Tampico Tornado reported that your parents had moved with their new baby to the Burden house, south of the depot."
I pointed down the one-block street, beyond the little crowd restrained by a police car, and across the tracks. "You can't see it because of the wheat elevator, but it's the house of your first memories."
"Are we going to visit?"
"I think they want us to go to church first, sir, and then go through the museum here."
Docile as ever, he nodded. I did not add that the current occupants of the white, double-story house had no desire to welcome him. Judging by the number of major appliances on the stoop, they were not Reagan Republicans.
Sunday-morning sunbeams streamed through the windows of the Christian Church. He sat immediately in front of me while the organ fluted "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and Whiteside County's Disciples of Christ--a corn-fed lot--squeezed themselves into adjoining pews. I leaned forward and said, "Just think, Mr. President, if your father had gotten you baptized in Saint Mary's, we'd be attending eleven o'clock mass."
He chuckled and whispered conspiratorially, "Bells and smells."
We sang number 270 in the hymnal. It occurred to me that I had never heard him sing, apart from his execrable rendering of "They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease" in International Squadron (1942). So I leaned forward and was surprised by the sweetness of his breathy light baritone. Unlike most public worshipers, he sang without a trace of self-consciousness, quietly, almost to himself.
There is a place of full release
A place full of joy and peace . . .
As so often before, I marveled at the dense lie of his hair, thick and shining as an otter's. Why is it old men and small boys always look so vulnerable from behind? Today, he seemed to belong to both categories. There was something engagingly innocent about the way he clutched his wife's hand throughout the prayers and sermon, and about his glance at her for approval when the preacher asked him to speak. Innocent, yet also strange: I had not seen him so dependent before. For the first time, I wondered if there was something wrong with him.
He spoke well enough, in his patented hesitant husk: "My brother and I were started off in the Christian Church by our mother, here in Tampico. I'm afraid I can't . . . uh, tell if this was the same building we--"
I nodded violently at him, over Nancy's coiffure, but he did not see me.
"Reason is, that was about seventy years ago. But I can't describe the feeling of being back here in my birthplace. Really, there are no words."
These were his standard clichés to express emotion required of him, but I looked around and saw many eyes fill with tears. Reagan checked too: the old actor counting the house. Satisfied, he ambled back to his pew, and we sang "That Old Rugged Cross."
Excerpted from Dutch by Edmund Morris. Copyright© 1999 by Edmund Morris. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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