He brought Big Government to its knees and stared down the Soviet Union. And the audience loved it
Time Magazine: April 13, 1998
Clare Boothe Luce famously said that each President is remembered for a sentence: “He freed the slaves”; “He made the Louisiana Purchase.” You have to figure out your sentence, she used to tell John Kennedy, who would nod thoughtfully and then grouse when she left. Ronald Reagan knew, going in, the sentence he wanted, and he got it. He guided the American victory in the cold war. Under his leadership, a conflict that had absorbed a half-century of Western blood and treasure was ended—and the good guys finally won.
It is good to think of how he did it, because the gifts he brought to resolving the conflict reflected very much who he was as a man. He began with a common-sense conviction that the Soviets were not a people to be contained but a system to be defeated. This put him at odds with the long-held view of the foreign-policy elites in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but Reagan had an old-fashioned sense that Americans could do any good thing if God blessed the effort. Removing expansionary communism from the world stage was a right and good thing, and why would God not smile upon it?
He was a historical romantic, his biographer Edmund Morris says, and that’s about right. He was one tough romantic, though.
When Reagan first entered politics, in 1964, Khrushchev had already promised to bury the U.S., Sputnik had been launched and missiles placed in Cuba. It seemed reasonable to think the Soviets might someday overtake the West. By the time Reagan made a serious run for the presidency, in 1976, it was easy to think the Soviets might conquer America militarily.
But Reagan said no. When he became President, he did what he had promised for a decade to do: he said we were going to rearm, and we built up the U.S. military. He boosted defense spending to make it clear to the Soviets and the world—and to America—that the U.S. did not intend to lose.
As President, he kept pressure on the Soviets at a time when they were beginning to fail internally. He pushed for SDI, the strategic defense missile system that was rightly understood by the Soviets as both a financial challenge and an intimidating expression of the power of U.S. scientific innovation.
There are those who say it was all a bluff, that such a system could never have been and will never be successfully developed. Put that aside for a moment, and consider a more relevant fact: If it was a bluff, the Soviets didn’t know it. And more to the point, Reagan as President had the credibility with the Soviets to make a serious threat. (And a particularly Reaganesque threat it was: he said not only would we build SDI, but we would also share it with them.)
Reagan’s actions toward the Soviets were matched by his constant rhetorical pounding of communism. He kept it up, for eight years, from “the evil empire” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” a constant attempt to use words to educate and inspire.
Margaret Thatcher said it best: he took words and sent them out to fight for us. He never stopped trying to persuade, to win the world over, to help it think about the nature of democracy and the nature of communism, and to consider which system it was that threatened the world’s peace.
In doing all this—in insisting that, as the sign he kept on his desk in the Oval Office said, IT CAN BE DONE—he kept up the morale of the anticommunist West. And not only Americans. When Natan Sharansky was freed after nine years in the gulag, he went to the White House and asked Reagan never to stop his hard-line speeches. Sharansky said news of those speeches was passed from prisoner to prisoner in the forced-labor camps.
After eight years of Reagan and his constant efforts, the Soviet Union collapsed. And Kremlin chieftains who had once promised to bury us were now asking for inclusion in NATO. That this is now a commonplace—ho-hum, the Berlin Wall fell—is proof of how quickly we absorb the astounding. An elderly woman I know was at lunch at a great resort one day before World War I began. Suddenly from the sky, one of those new flying machines, an aeroplane, which no one there had ever seen, zoomed in to land on the smooth, rolling lawn. Everyone ran out to look at this marvel and touch it. What, she was asked 70 years later, did you do after that? “We went inside and finished lunch.”
That’s what the world did after the Wall came down, and is doing now. We went inside and finished lunch. But it is good to remember: a marvel had visited, had come down and landed on the lawn, even though such things are impossible. And it’s good to remember that though many people built and funded and sacrificed for the “plane,” Ronald Reagan was its pilot.
Domestically, he was no less a smasher of the status quo, a leader for serious and “impossible” change. F.D.R., the great President of Reagan’s young manhood and from whom he learned the sound and tone and tense of the presidency, convinced the country in the 1930s that only the bounty and power of the Federal establishment could fully heal a wounded country. Reagan convinced (or reminded) the country that the bounty came from us, the people, that the power was absorbed from us, the people, and that we the people would benefit from a good portion of their return. Reagan had a libertarian conviction, which is really an old American conviction, that power is best and most justly wielded from the individual to the community to the state and then the Federal Government—and not from the Federal Government on down. He thought, as Jefferson said, that that government governs best that governs least. He wanted to shrink the bloated monster; he wanted to cut very seriously the amount of money the monster took from the citizenry each year in taxes.
He was not afraid to speak on school prayer and abortion, though his aides warned him it hurt him in the polls. He cared about the polls but refused to let them silence him. Abortion is wrong, he said, because it both kills and coarsens.
In doing all this, in taking the actions he took at home and abroad, in using words and conviction and character to fight, he produced the biggest, most successful and most meaningful presidency since Franklin Roosevelt’s. In fact, when you look at the great Presidents of this century, I think it comes down to two Roosevelts and a Reagan. Reagan kept Teddy’s picture in his Cabinet Room, in part because he loved T.R.’s brio in tackling the big questions.
The result of Reagan’s presidency? I asked him a few years after he left office what he thought his legacy was, how he would sum it up. It wasn’t a very Reagan question: he didn’t think much about his personal place in history, he thought about what was right and then tried to do it. But he told me he thought his eight years could be summed up this way: “He tried to expand the frontiers of human freedom in a world at peace with itself.”
He came from nowhere, not from Hyannis or Greenwich but from nowhere. He was born above a store in Tampico, Ill., born in fact 16 years before Lucky Lindy landed in Paris. It is easy to romanticize the Midwest Reagan came from, but he didn’t. “There was nothing in those towns,” he told me when I asked, years ago, why he left. He wanted more, and got it, in Hollywood and beyond. But he was not just a lucky and blessed young man, a bright fellow smiled on by the gods. He had grit.
He showed one kind of grit by becoming a conservative in Hollywood in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Just when everyone else was going left, particularly everyone in Hollywood who could enhance his career, he was going right. But he held to his position. It is easier to have convictions when they are shared by everyone around you; it is easier to hold to those convictions when you are surrounded by like-minded people. He almost never was.
He could take it in the face and keep on walking. Reaganites like to point to his 1976 run for the presidency, when he came within an inch of unseating Jerry Ford. When Reagan lost, he gave a valiant speech to his followers in which he spoke of the cause and signaled that he’d be back.
But I like to remember this: Reagan played Vegas. In 1954, when demand for his acting services was slowing, Reagan emceed a variety act to make money and keep his name in the air. He didn’t like doing it. But it was what he had to do, so he did it. The point is he knew what it was to be through, to have people not answer your calls. When I thought about this time in his life once, I thought, All the great ones have known failure, but only the greatest of the great use it. He always used his. It deepened him and sharpened him.
What was it that made him great? You can argue that great moments call forth great leaders, that the ‘20s brought forth a Harding, but the dramatic and demanding ‘30s and ‘80s summoned an F.D.R. and a Reagan. In Reagan’s case, there was also something else. It was that he didn’t become President to reach some egocentric sense of personal destiny; he didn’t need the presidency, and he didn’t go for it because of some strange vanity, some weird desire to be loved or a need of power to fill the empty spaces within. He didn’t want the presidency in order to be a big man. He wanted the presidency so that he could do big things.
I think as we look back we will see him as the last gentleman of American politics. He was as courtly and well mannered as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are not. He was a person of dignity and weight, warmth and wit. The English say a gentleman is one who never insults another by accident, but Reagan took it a step further: he wouldn’t insult another on purpose.
For all that, there was of course his famous detachment. I never understood it, and neither, from what I’ve seen, did anyone else. It is true that when you worked for him, whether for two years or 20, he didn’t care that much about your feelings. His saving grace—and it is a big one, a key one to his nature—is that he didn’t care much about his feelings either. The cause was all, the effort to make the world calmer and the country freer was all.
Reagan’s achievements were adult achievements, but when I think of him now I think of the reaction he got from the young. It was as if some mutual sweetness were sensed on both sides.
The man who ran speechwriting in the Reagan White House was Bently Elliott, and Ben’s secretary was a woman in her early 20s named Donna. She adored Reagan. When he came back from long trips, when his helicopter landed on the White House lawn, the sound and whirr of the engine and blades would make our offices shake. We’d all stop and listen. Donna would call out, spoofing the mother in a ‘50s sitcom, “Daddy’s home!” But you know, that’s how I think a lot of people felt when Reagan was in the White House: Daddy’s home. A wise and brave and responsible man is running things. And that’s a good way to feel.
Another memory. Ben Elliott went with Reagan on his trip to China in 1984. Reagan spoke everywhere, as the ruling gerontocracy watched and weighed. The elders did not notice that the young of China were falling in love with the American President (that love was expressed in part in Beijing’s great square during the democracy movement of 1989). One day as Reagan spoke about the history of America and the nature of democracy, a young Chinese student, standing in the back and listening to the translation, turned to the American visitor, Ben Elliott. He didn’t know much English, but he turned to Ben, pointed toward Reagan and said, eyes shining, “He is great Yankeeman.”
One great Yankeeman is exactly what he was, and is.
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