Originally posted at www.swacgop.org, June 10, 2004
The end of former President Reagan's amazing life has brought forth a broad outpouring of love and devotion. Even many people who used to say very unkind things about him are now joining the chorus of posthumous praise. Others remain as grimly hostile to him (and his conservative agenda) as ever. What was it about Ronald Reagan that brings out such varied reactions, and what are some preliminary lessons of his presidency for today?
As Lou Cannon wrote in his biography President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Reagan's childhood life was emotionally painful, which may explain his enigmatic and sometimes aloof personality. Nevertheless, growing up in a small town (Dixon, Illinois) seems to have instilled in him superior moral values and character traits that enabled him to rise above adversity, time and again. Working as a radio announcer and then as an actor in Hollywood, Reagan demonstrated a sharpness of wit and a charming presence that rarely failed to "disarm" those around him. Lacking any guile or vanity whatsoever, though, he was never really cut out to be a "movie star," so he moved on to bigger and better things. While the rest of the country moved toward the left in the 1960s, embracing LBJ's tragic "Great Society" social experiments, Reagan defied fashion and switched parties, joining the Republicans. As governor of California, he gained a nationwide reputation for speaking bluntly from the heart, and for carrying out things he promised. Disparaged by most journalists as a throwback to an earlier time, he repeatedly stunned political opponents who underestimated him. As the nation slid into recession, inflation, despair, self-doubt, and global retreat during the 1970s, Reagan emerged as one of the only clear voices insisting that America could return to greatness.
For what should Reagan's years as president be remembered? Many people emphasize his tax cuts, which eventually stimulated an enormous investment boom. Others mention his (tacit) support of the Federal Reserve Board's restrictive monetary policies that slashed the rate of inflation from 13 percent when he took office to about six percent when he left. Because big-spending Democrats retained a majority in the House of Representatives, however, Reagan had to make painful compromises in economic policy, and balancing the budget ended up as the lowest priority. The fact that both parties shared responsibility for the rising deficits of the 1980s makes a conclusive assessment of his economic legacy rather difficult. Just imagine how much more President Reagan could have accomplished if the Republican party had won a majority in both the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, it was not until the Republican Revolution of 1995 that fundamental spending reforms were enacted, thereby shoring up the nation's financial foundations, and putting the nation on the road to prosperity.
Yet none of those economic achievements would have been possible without addressing the underlying threat to national security posed by Soviet expansionism around the globe. It is easy for people living today to forget the shadow of fear that the Cold War cast over the lives of people. The Soviet Union was regarded back then as a permanent, immutable reality, and the mere possibility of World War III discouraged any serious contemplation of alternatives. When Reagan was inaugurated, almost no one imagined that the Soviet empire would peacefully dissolve eleven years hence. For most people, the imperative of maintaining peace at any cost meant "reaching an understanding" with the Soviets and not doing anything to anger them. Once again, Reagan defied conventional wisdom that exalted "detente" as the only way to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Instead, he stood up to the bullying, deceitful Soviet leaders, even calling them an "evil empire." This elicited a mixture of contemptuous chortles and nervous gasps from the liberal establishment. (Could he be right?) In the face of fierce, hysterical protests from leftists in Europe and America, Reagan went ahead with deploying Pershing II missiles and cruise missiles in Europe, thereby neutralizing the threat to NATO unity posed by Soviet SS-20 intermediate range missiles.
This deployment marked the climactic turning point of the Cold War. The Soviet leaders realized that they could no longer keep up with American military technology, and that the political-psychological leverage they had enjoyed since the late 1960s was quickly slipping away. Their only hope was to adopt a reformist pose and lure Reagan into making concessions that would preserve their totalitarian empire. Though Mikhail Gorbachev was regarded as a hero by many in the West, Reagan saw through Gorbachev's offer and refused to bargain away the hard-won U.S. advantages at the Rejkyavik summit in 1987. To the further dismay of the Left, he called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin later that year. These breathtakingly bold actions were called "reckless" by his opponents at the time, but they were part of a strategic vision that paved the way for the West's unequivocal triumph in the Cold War. By erasing the fear of the Soviets which had paralyzed much of the Western world, Ronald Reagan not only spawned a renaissance of investor confidence in the West but undermined the authority of the Communist regimes of the East, hastening their demise. Less than a year after he left office, the Berlin Wall fell.
How much of the credit for the triumph of West in the Cold War does Reagan deserve? Was he just lucky to be presiding at a time when the Soviet Union was decaying, as many think? Would things have turned out differently without Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II? Perhaps, but the very fact that so many people in the West still regard with deep scorn those three history-changing leaders suggests that the struggle for freedom remains unfinished business. Reagan was far from perfect, and he committed enough blunders to give those on the Left some reason to question his stature. Still, isn't it obvious to any reasonable person that his achievements far outweigh his errors? Differences of opinion will persist until the end of time, but there ought to be some basis in fact for reaching a rough consensus on Reagan's standing among past U.S. presidents. No one doubts that George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were great, but they both faced bitter opposition while serving as president. As they say, "time heals all," so it will probably take decades before Reagan is fully appreciated by an overwhelming majority of Americans.
Yet an even bigger part of the problem in assessing Reagan, I think, is simple ignorance about the world, which has become lamentably fashionable in recent years. When I teach college classes in global politics, I am often stunned at how little today's students know about the Cold War, much less World War II. Opinions these days are formed on the basis of televised images, cliches, and sound bites, so it is no surprise that many Americans have succumbed to negative thinking about the war in Iraq. The striking parallels between the widespread scathing derision toward both presidents Bush (II) and Reagan on one hand, and between the fatalistic resignation to the "permanent" threats of Arab-Islamic terrorism and Soviet tyranny on the other hand, are simply too big to ignore. In both cases, the main problem was cynical, ill-informed closed-mindedness, a refusal to seriously consider the possibility that the president might be sincere -- or even right.
Thankfully, President Reagan possessed a clear vision for the future, the skills necessary to communicate it, the courage to take necessary risks to pursue it, the will to persevere in the face of doom-sayers, and the personal modesty to assuage anxieties and avoid bitter feelings. He was exactly the kind of inspiring, resourceful, and dedicated president we needed at that critical moment in our nation's history. Those are big shoes for President Bush to fill, obviously. Speaking as one who used to protest against Ronald Reagan's policies in my much younger days, I believe that the ultimate measure of our 40th president's greatness lies in the legacy of faith in American values which he bequeathed to our generation, a vast repository of moral strength that the enemies of freedom will never understand. The only question is whether enough American people do. We will find out in November.