More Reagan Tributes
The Big Media is incredibly slow by blog standards. Another round of Reagan tributes has hit with today’s papers; I suspect we’ll be getting them for a while.
Ronald Reagan died just one day after President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Pope John Paul II for his heroic efforts to topple communism. Those two men, together with Margaret Thatcher, deserve much of the credit for the West’s success in the Cold War.
I told you that yesterday–and Fund forgot Lech Walesa.
What made Ronald Reagan the greatest President of the second half of the 20th century? Well, he certainly had the one quality Napoleon always sought in a general: luck. Luck in his looks, luck in his voice, luck in his smile, luck in his choice of mate (although for Reagan the second time was the charm).
And the greatest luck that any President can have: trouble, serious trouble. An acquaintance of Bill Clinton’s has said that he felt frustrated that Sept. 11 did not happen on his watch. That is understandable (if characteristically self-centered) because the best chance any President has for greatness is to be in power during war or disaster. Apart from the Founders, the only great President we have had in good times is Theodore Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were the “luckiest” of them all, having had the opportunity to take the country triumphantly through the two greatest wars in U.S. history.
Reagan’s luck was to find a nation in trouble Ã¢€” in post-Vietnam retreat and disorientation. His political genius was to restore its spirit. And his legacy was winning the longest war in American history, the long twilight struggle of the cold war.
George Will (again):
Ronald Reagan, unlike all but 10 or so Presidents, was a world figure whose career will interest historians for centuries, and centuries hence his greatness will be, and should be, measured primarily by what happened in Europe, as a glorious echo of his presidency, in the three years after he left the White House. What happened was the largest peaceful revolution in history, resulting in history’s largest emancipation of people from tyrannyÃ¢€”a tyranny that had deadened life for hundreds of millions of people from the middle of Germany to the easternmost of Russia’s 11 time zones.
Reagan believed the compassionate thing to do was to give people their freedom, to place our trust in that freedom, and to put our trust in democracy Ã¢€” in the people, in the goodness of our people Ã¢€” and to believe in ourselves, in our country and what we stood for. While others scoffed at him, he was never ashamed to stand up for what America believed and for what mattered to ordinary people. Government was not equipped to tell us what to do, how to invest our money, or how best to provide for our families. He moved the country in his direction, creating Reagan Democrats Ã¢€” people who believed what he did Ã¢€” regardless of party, race, religion or wealth.
While Americans live in the house that Abraham Lincoln built, the modern world is the home of Ronald Reagan. More than 700 million people who lived behind the Iron Curtain now have a taste of freedom, and their children and grandchildren will live with opportunities they could not have imagined. By building our defenses Ã¢€” rather than unleashing aggression Ã¢€” Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union. In so doing, he exposed its bankruptcy Ã¢€” financial, political, moral and spiritual. This is his great and lasting achievement. Today, economic opportunities are increasing, and while individual and political liberties lag in some corners, they are moving inexorably in the direction that Reagan envisioned and to which he devoted his presidency.
I don’t know whether we would have been able to agree and to insist on the implementation of our agreements with a different person at the helm of American government. True, Reagan was a man of the right. But, while adhering to his convictions, with which one could agree or disagree, he was not dogmatic; he was looking for negotiations and cooperation. And this was the most important thing to me: he had the trust of the American people.
The personal rapport that emerged between us over the years helped me to appreciate Ronald Reagan’s human qualities. A true leader, a man of his word and an optimist, he traveled the journey of his life with dignity and faced courageously the cruel disease that darkened his final years. He has earned a place in history and in people’s hearts.
As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.
Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him Ã¢€” “The Great Communicator.”
Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.
He also understood timing.
He studied communism, read Marx, read the Founders and the conservative philosophers from Burke to Burnham. He began to tug right. The Democratic Party and his industry continued to turn left. There was a parting.
A word on his intellectual reflexes. Ronald Reagan was not a cynic–he did not assume the worst about people. But he was a skeptic; he knew who we are. He did not think that people with great degrees or great success were necessarily smart, for instance. He had no interest in credentialism. He once told me an economist was a fellow with a Phi Beta Kappa key on one end of his chain and no watch on the other. That’s why they never know what time it is. He didn’t say this with asperity, but with mirth.
He did not dislike intellectuals–his heroes often were intellectuals, from the Founders straight through Milton Friedman and Hayek and Solzhenitsyn. But he did not favor the intellectuals of his own day, because he thought they were in general thick-headed. He thought that many of the 20th century’s intellectuals were high-IQ dimwits. He had an instinctive agreement with Orwell’s putdown that a particular idea was so stupid that only an intellectual would believe it.
He thought that intellectuals, like the great liberal academics of the latter half of the 20th century, tended to tie themselves in great webs of complexity, webs they’d often spun themselves–great complicated things that they’d get stuck in, and finally get out of, only to go on and construct a new web for mankind to get caught in. The busy little spiders from Marx through Bloomsbury–some of whom, such as the Webbs, were truly the stupidest brilliant people who ever lived–through Harvard and Yale and the American left circa 1900-90.
t is hard to remember what America was like 25 years ago. It was 1979, and at 68, Ronald Reagan was launching his third campaign for the presidency. Around the world, America was in retreat. Iranians had American diplomats as hostages. Soviet troops had moved into Afghanistan. The American economy was in desperate trouble.
American exceptionalismÃ¢€”the idea that this country is special and specially goodÃ¢€”seemed dead. That conclusion was reinforced by the failures of Vietnam and Watergate, and by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Previous great presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, had led their country through terrible wars and then, visibly aged, had fallen at the moment of victory. But Kennedy, still seeming young and vigorous, was struck down when his work was far from done. America, it seemed, was no longer specially blessed.
Ronald Reagan would have none of it. Like Franklin Roosevelt, for whom he voted four times, Reagan was an American exceptionalist through and through. America was, for him, as for John Winthrop, “a city on a hill,” a nation with a special mission to show the way toward liberty and human rights. The “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, Regan predicted, would soon be consigned to the “ash heap of human history.” Through his aggressive defense buildup and his missile-defense program, Regan pushed the Soviet Union toward collapse. His America was not just one of many countries, with a system more or less as good as any other; it was a nation that stood for the right ideas, a nation was strong enough and confident enough to make those ideas prevail through most of the world.