Campaign 2008: What Would Reagan Have Thought?

Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of my father's death. For anyone who has lost a loved one, those anniversaries are both sad and sweet. The sadness is obvious—you don't stop missing the person who has gone; you don't stop wishing you'd had one more year, one more day. The sweetness sneaks up on you. It comes in the form of memories, some of them long buried. But mostly it comes with the realization that nothing ever dismantled the love between you, even though many things seemed to along the way.

At this time of year in California, the jacaranda trees are blooming. On some streets, there is a canopy of purple above and a blanket of purple blossoms on the pavement below. Jasmine is also blooming; the soft perfume lingers in the air. If I didn't have a calendar, I would still know that this anniversary was upon us. Jacaranda and jasmine will always be the background palette of that time.

As similar as my experience is to anyone else's who has lost a parent, it is also different because my family lived in the public eye. Because the country grieved along with us when my father died. Because tomorrow at the Reagan Library, when my mother and I go to put white roses on my father's grave, there will be more people than usual there, all of them marking the occasion, too.

It seems valuable, I think, in these thorny political times, to remember why so many people mourned so deeply when Ronald Reagan died. It had nothing to do with politics, but rather with the quality of his character. It had to do with his goodness, his dignity—qualities that we as a nation are hungry for. We know we need leadership, but we also know we need compassion. We're sick to death of meanness and sniping, yet we've also grown accustomed to it.

My father would be perplexed by the overabundance of meanness in the political field. And he would be deeply saddened by it. His wish, I think, would be that we as a country turn our backs on the vitriol that has become too commonplace and demand that the "race" for president become a dignified one, as archaic as that may sound these days.

A friend who recently lost her mother said to me, "Death distills everything." It's true. I, like many people, live with regrets that will never lessen—the times I lashed out at my father, refused to appreciate him or consider his feelings, his point of view. I envy those who can say after a parent's death that they don't have remorse—I just don't know too many people like that. But regrets can lead you to a profound awareness of what's important, what's meaningful. Since I do share my father with America and with the world, how he lived his life—not just as a politician, but as a man—has resonance for all of us.

He believed that words can wound, that even in the harsh, muckraking world of politics, it simply isn't right to insult another person. He believed that this country's greatness came from its collective heart, from its history of being a "melting pot" and that the dark passages of our history came when we lost sight of our own heart. He had no tolerance for racism. He was raised in a home where people were never judged by the color of their skin. He was raised in a home where everyone was considered a child of God, and he carried that belief with him throughout his life.

Politics aside, I think most Americans long for those qualities in a president, particularly in these uncertain times.

When we were in Washington, D.C., for my father's service, I was taken on a tour of the White House. I hadn't been there since he was president, and in those years I couldn't appreciate it--I was too blinded by my own saga of being a very reluctant First Daughter.

But four years ago, in June, I finally understood the reverence my father felt for that building—for its history, its memories, its significance. To walk through the White House and really absorb the environment is to remember that this country was founded on the idea of respect for life, truth and freedom. It was also founded out of rebellion, but that did not diminish the dignity the Founding Fathers brought to the task.

My father's dignity didn't die four years ago, and neither did our longing for it. The anniversary of his death may best be marked by reflecting on how he lived his life.