So much has been written and broadcasted about the life and politics of Ronald Reagan since his death on Saturday that it is hard to imagine anything else left to say about his legacy. Even the Reagan Revolution in tax and economic policy, with which I was so closely involved, seems thoroughly covered at this point, although it still remains a mystery to the left.
In reflecting on what more to say about this great American, it struck me that notwithstanding their importance, it wasn’t Reagan’s wisdom, his wit, his courage, his vision or his skills at communicating that vision or his ability to lead the American people toward that vision that set him apart. It was his indefatigable optimism and an overflowing love for his fellow human beings – one in particular, his wife Nancy – that made Reagan who he was and were the underlying source of everything he accomplished.
No one could be around Reagan or hear him talk without being infected by his optimism and perceiving that genuine feeling of affection, care and concern for his fellow man. But it was Nancy Reagan who later revealed the source of his optimism and his love – his faith in God. It wasn’t an ostentatious or self-absorbed faith that manifested itself in rigid certainty about matters of this Earth; it was a deep, abiding knowledge that we are all playing bit parts, albeit eternally important parts, on this earthly stage and being directed by a higher power. It was that certainty of faith that freed Reagan of hubris to be humble – meek in the true sense of the word – in his relations with other people, with other nations and in the decisions he made as president.
Nancy put it this way, “Ronnie has always been a very religious man. He has always believed that God has a plan for each of us and that while we might not understand his plan now, eventually we will.” She also revealed in an unguarded comment about his love letters to her how Reagan’s strong faith made it possible for him to lead others: “He often wrote to me of what was most important to him in spiritual terms, and I admired his faith, although I did not share the firmness of his convictions. I did, however, draw strength from his faith over the years – as did we all.
Reagan never preached from the bully pulpit; he conversed with the people. He never thought he had all the answers or that he was put on this Earth to reveal and implement God’s plan for the rest of us, neither when he was governor of California nor when he was president of the United States. His faith wasn’t expressed in a rigid certainty of what God’s plan was or how he fit into it but rather was faith-created and drove an intellectual honesty that allowed him to be remarkably flexible whenever it was necessary to adjust courses.
His flexibility was first revealed to me in 1979, when I saw him do a 180-degree turn on economic policy, reject the old-time Republican economic religion of fiscal austerity and embrace across-the-board tax-rate reductions to combat stagflation. As he said in his first inaugural address, “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy.”
Reagan had a hunger and thirst for the truth that led him to continually reassess the assumptions on which he was operating. He didn’t agonize Hamlet-like or flip-flop from one position to another. He never wavered on principles, but his humble nature and affection for his adversaries meant he was always re-evaluating how he was applying those principles and how to achieve a practical result.
Reagan’s hallmark – what made him a great politician while remaining true to his moral compass – was his ability to find practical outcomes without abandoning principle. With the Soviet Union, for example, we faced the most dangerous adversary America has ever confronted, a foe that not only possessed but openly brandished weapons of mass destruction. Yet Reagan was prescient when he said in a 1981 speech at Notre Dame University that, “The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Who else but Reagan could have foreseen the demise of that evil empire in our lifetime? With all due respect to William Manchester, one of Churchill’s biographers who called the great British prime minister the “last lion” of the 20th century for defeating fascism, it was Reagan ultimately who was the true “last lion” of the 20th century for defeating communism without firing a shot.
Reagan’s solution wasn’t to defeat communism on the battlefield or best it diplomatically but to transcend it economically and morally. When the Soviet Union was almost prostrate economically and verging on civil war in its outer provinces, Reagan had the courage and the wisdom to seek peace through strength, not belligerency. He joined forces with Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher to apply the most powerful kind of pressure – moral suasion backed by military strength – while at the same time providing the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the maneuvering room to bring Soviet communism to a peaceful end.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was a peacemaker who loved freedom for all mankind. We loved you, too, Mr. President, and we will remember you always.