Like Sarah Palin, I came of age in the era of Ronald Reagan, although for me, that process began more in 1976 as a 13-year-old fascinated by national politics than four years later as a high-school graduate wondering if I’d get the same opportunities as previous generations.  By that time, we had experienced a lost economic decade, on top of which we added the humiliations of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Reagan promised a new morning in America to a nation desperate to wake up from what looked to be a nationwide nightmare of endless decline.  Palin aptly recalls Reagan’s youth and his work as a lifeguard as a metaphor for his two-term presidency:

The image of the lifeguard seems to represent what Reagan was to America and to the freedom-loving people of the world. He lifted our country up at a time when we were in the depths of economic, cultural and spiritual malaise. We were told that we must accept that the era of American greatness was over; but with his optimism and common sense, President Reagan held up a mirror to the American soul to remind us of our exceptionalism. …

Today, when we hear the worry in the voices of Americans wondering where the jobs will be for our children and grandchildren and wondering if the world will be safe and prosperous in the years to come, we should remember Reagan’s faith in our inherent heroism and greatness. When we see people around the globe looking to the White House for leadership, we should remember Reagan’s steel spine. He understood America’s purpose in this world and what we need to do to secure liberty. As Margaret Thatcher said of him, “He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism.” He sought those things and he succeeded.

This year, as we celebrate the centennial of Reagan’s birth, let’s remember the lifeguard from the Rock River who rescued us with his optimism and common sense. We need more lifeguards like him.

Palin’s essay is well worth reading, but it’s hardly unusual for Republicans to sign hosannas to Reagan.  But when Sam Donaldson starts pining for the Reagan era, well, we really have an official trend:

Yes, I came to respect Reagan’s skills as a leader, and despite what many good Republicans believe to this day, I came to like him personally.

Two early actions made me rethink my early skepticism. On March 30, 1981, I was standing 5 feet away from John Hinckley when he shot Reagan and three other people outside the Washington Hilton. From the moment Reagan hitched up his pants as he got out of his limousine at the hospital emergency room — he always wanted to look neat in public, explained aide Michael Deaver— to the moment he left the hospital, he handled the shooting in a heroic manner. In fact, when a reporter asked what he would do when he got back to the White House, he replied matter-of-factly, “Sit down.”

Later that year, when the president fired the nation’s air traffic controllers for an ill-advised and illegal strike, I understood (as did the Soviets) that he knew how to “work” the country and the system better than most.

Will there be another like Ronald Wilson Reagan? Not in our lifetime. And that’s too bad.

In less than two weeks, we will celebrate Reagan’s centennial, and the temptation will be to spend the year looking backward.  But that wasn’t what Reagan did at all.  He reminded America of its values, but Reagan rarely cast those in the form of the past tense or past political leadership.  He didn’t rescue us from malaise by only recalling the Great Depression and our ability to succeed from it, but by pushing the kinds of policies that would return economic, diplomatic, and military strength to the US in the present tense — many of which innovated and deviated from the policies pursued in the pre- and post-World War II era and our recovery from the Great Depression.

The temptation for Republican candidates to look back to Reagan in their speeches this year will be strong, and understandable, and it may not be limited to Republicans.  Reagan, who was always a popular figure, has grown into a beloved statesman in the decades since his retirement, which is why the US will celebrate his centennial.  But a better homage would be to have Republican candidates throughout the spectrum steep themselves in political and economic policy and philosophy for years as Reagan did, and succeed in innovating in the present to make them succeed.  This next election, like the last, won’t be won by Republicans just promising to be a little less profligate than Democrats or to offer moderation rather than actual change, and that change has to be predicated on clearly-communicated values and a solid track record of both fidelity and success with those principles and policies.

We need another lifeguard like Reagan, but we won’t find one looking in the past.  And a lifeguard without preparation and training won’t rescue many people, either.   Reagan would want his party to remember its historical values of freedom and liberty, but to look forward for ways to expand them rather than wax nostalgic for long.