I think that of all the gifts Ronald Reagan gave to this nation the most precious was his unyielding faith in America, the American ideal and the American people.
People say he was optimistic and, to be sure, he was. But he wasn’t a blind optimist. He wasn’t a naive sentimentalist clinging to a past America whose greatness could not be restored.
He was optimistic because he believed in the unchangeable values and principles that drove this country to greatness. And he also believed that the ideology driving those values and principles — conservatism — was one possessed by a majority of the American people, provided you could communicate directly with them, outside the filter of the mainstream media and popular culture.
When that ideology apparently suffered a devastating blow with Lyndon Johnson’s landslide rout of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan did not retreat into a shell of dejection and defeatism. He never considered for a moment that Goldwater’s loss was a referendum of the American people rejecting conservatism.
In a 1964 editorial following the election, Reagan wrote: “There are no plans for retreating from our present positions, but we can’t advance without reinforcements. Are reinforcements available? The answer is an unhesitating — ‘Yes!’ They are to be found in the millions of so-called Republican defectors — those people who didn’t really want LBJ, but who were scared of what they thought we represented. Read that sentence very carefully because, in my opinion, it tells the story. All of the landslide majority did not vote against the conservative philosophy; they voted against a false image our Liberal opponents successfully mounted.”
Reagan was exactly right. LBJ was able to convince a large number of voters, including untold Republicans, that Goldwater was a warmonger with an itchy finger ready to press the “nuclear” button. I was not quite 12 years old, but I remember Goldwater addressing the nation on television the night before the election. He virtually pleaded with Americans not to believe the propaganda that had been so brutally conveyed by an ad showing a little girl picking a daisy just as a nuclear weapon detonates and transports the young gardener to oblivion. Talk about dirty campaigning!
Goldwater’s efforts to convince people he wasn’t a jingoistic madman were in vain. We didn’t really know at the time whether the taint was limited to Goldwater or if it had spread to all of conservatism. Nixon’s two successful presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972 didn’t answer the question either because Nixon wasn’t nearly as conservative as Goldwater had been. Remember wage and price controls?
But we got our answer in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s unwaivering confidence in the conservative message and the sound judgment of the American people was validated. And let there be no mistake: He campaigned as an unapologetic conservative.
Reagan’s achievement was no mean feat, considering that liberals, whose vision culminated in the years of Carter malaise, had written off our nation’s greatness as a thing of the past. I’ll never forget a visiting economics expert guest lecturing my labor economics class at the University of Missouri, telling us we could expect nothing but economic gloom and doom in America in perpetuity.
Reagan, obviously, didn’t share that vision. He knew that America’s greatness resided with her people, as long as they remained dedicated to freedom and were unshackled by oppressive governmental restraints. His goal was merely to give back the reins to the people.
Reagan proved that a conservative could win running as a conservative, provided he didn’t allow the opposition to define him, as Goldwater had. But more importantly, Reagan governed as a conservative, shepherding through Congress monumental, growth-igniting tax cuts and single-handedly winning the Cold War against the Soviets by simultaneously defeating internal liberal opposition at home to our prosecution of that war.
Above all, Ronald Reagan was real; there wasn’t an ounce of phoniness in him. He believed in and loved America with a passionate, contagious patriotism that rippled through the body politic into the national soul. He made it acceptable to believe in the greatness of this country again, in its economic potential and its benevolent military might.
We still have essentially two competing visions for America, one characterized by the Reaganesque belief in the uniqueness of the American constitutional experiment and the other longing to emulate the “enlightened” European continent with its socialist economies and pacifist foreign policies.
Ronald Reagan passed away, but his legacy and vision live on, more relevant and urgent today than ever before. The best way for the nation to repay its debt to his service is to return to his timeless prescriptions for America’s greatness. Ronald Reagan, R.I.P.