“Hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic — daring, decent and fair.”
So Ronald Reagan said of America in his second inaugural address. And so it shall be said of him.
He came from another time and place, Ronald Reagan did, a time long ago when love of country was as natural for a boy growing up in Illinois as was a faith that nothing was beyond the capacity of the great and good people whence he had come.
He had a lifelong love affair with America, with her history, heroes, stories and legends. Now he is now one of those legends.
In life and as an actor, he always relished romantic and heroic roles, whether as the lifeguard who pulled 77 swimmers to safety, the legendary George Gipp of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame or the statesman who walked out of a summit meeting in Iceland rather than compromise the security of the country he was elected to protect.
When America began to tear herself apart over morality, race and Vietnam in the 1960s, the old certitudes he articulated and the old virtues he personified held a magnetic attraction for a people bewildered by what was happening to their country. When he spoke, he took us to a higher ground, above petty and partisan squabbles and divisions, where we could dream again and be a people again.
In the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan’s speech of blazing defiance vaulted him into the leadership of the conservative movement. And after Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, the Soviet empire rampant and America held hostage, the country, unready for Reagan or conservatism in 1964, took a chance in 1980.
And when she did, America won the lottery.
With the help of tough Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, after they took effect in 1983, ignited a 17-year boom unlike any in the 20th century. America was back.
Reagan’s sunny persona, his grace under fire after the attempt on his life, endeared him to his countrymen. When he came out of the anesthesia after the surgery to remove the bullet so near his heart, he looked up at the nervous nurses hovering over him and said, “OK, let’s do the whole scene over again, beginning at the hotel.”
His refusal to compromise principle, his resolve to restore the morale and might of the armed forces of which he was now commander in chief, converted America to conservatism and created a constituency all his own: Reagan Democrats. I do not know if Ronald Reagan would have cared that they named that building in Washington after him, but he would have loved that big aircraft carrier.
In the 1960s, it was a handicap in a presidential campaign to be a conservative. Republicans shied away from the label a hostile media had equated with extremism. With Reagan, it was an honor. He was never embarrassed or ashamed at being a man of the right.
Every year, he would speak at CPAC. In every State of the Union, he demanded a line be inserted calling for an amendment to the constitution to protect the life of the unborn. He believed God had spared him and that the time left to him was to be spent doing God’s work here on earth.
Where other politicians feared to tred on the battlegrounds of philosophy and principle, Reagan rushed in. Nominated in 1980, he demanded a “no pale pastels” platform — and then ran on it.
He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he loved stories. Seconds before going out to face the press in prime-time news conferences 80 million Americans and the whole world would watch, he was still telling jokes. He was devoid of ego and of the boastfulness so common in this capital. “There is no limit to how far a man can go,” read a plaque in his office, “so long as he is willing to let someone else get the credit.”
What did he achieve? Ronald Reagan let the American eagle soar. He cut tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent, restored our spirit, rebuilt the armed forces into the most formidable the world had ever seen and led us to bloodless victory in the Cold War. Time declared Mikhail Gorbachev Man of the Decade. America knows better.
Branded by a hostile city as “an amiable dunce,” he paid no heed. He was more concerned with what his friends at HUMAN EVENTS wrote than what his adversaries at The Washington Post or The New York Times said.
He was warned that his determination to challenge the Soviet Empire philosophically, and strategically in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua, risked war. Yet this 70-year-old man who began his presidency calling the Soviet Union an evil empire ended it strolling through Red Square arm-in-arm with the last leader of that empire.
A British statesman once said all political lives end in failure. As always, Ronald Reagan is the exception. We shall not see his like again.