In his great work of Christian apologetics, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton spoke of the “romance of orthodoxy,” a phrase that sounded like a contradiction in terms. “Orthodoxy” is supposed to be a stodgy thing, the very opposite of chivalric-sounding “romance.” But as Chesterton knew, few things in life arouse more opposition, and are therefore in greater need of brave champions, than orthodoxy. Chesterton made it clear that to be orthodox meant not so much to stand pat for the status quo as to crusade for truth — a noble endeavor that required youthful energy if not youth itself, fierce independence of mind, and above all courage.
So it was, I think, with Ronald Reagan and conservatism — a word that is, if anything, even stodgier-sounding than orthodoxy. At least it was when I was in college in the mid-’70s, when I could count literally on one finger the number of friends who inclined even slightly to the right. (Ironic footnote: that one friend was Cass Sunstein, then a regular reader of National Review — now a regular contributor to The New Republic and a well known ultra-liberal law professor.) When Reagan was on the rise, he seemed only to confirm the stereotype. He was old, after all, as were (or so it seemed) most of his supporters. Besides, it was still possible then to believe that with the tainted, terminally unhip Nixon-Ford regime having been replaced by the morally pristine, oh-so-youthful St. Jimmy Administration, the Sixties Generation was finally coming into its own.
Which of course it was — and that was the problem. Fast-forward to 1980, and the failures and dangers of liberalism were plain for all to see, not least in one’s own life (speaking for myself, at any rate). For me, the once-unthinkable became, well, thinkable. But not quite do-able: when I called my old college roommate on Election Day in a quandary over whom to vote for, he answered: “What, are you kidding? Carter, of course!” (Second ironic footnote: He voted for Reagan in ’84.) I followed his advice, and earned myself the dubious distinction of being the only Conservative Book Club editor ever to have voted for Jimmy Carter — twice over.
Repentance came quickly, however. Almost as soon as Reagan was declared the winner, I found myself rooting for him. It wasn’t so much a turning toward some new set of political principles as a turning away from liberalism — and back to something more rooted in history, tradition, human nature, common sense. Reagan has always been presented by his detractors as an ideologue, but he really was the antithesis: someone who couldn’t be cowed by credentialed “experts” into denying the plain reality of things. His reputation as a “Great Communicator” had much more to do with the simple truth of what he was saying than with how he was saying it. Just as remarkable, as often as not, was the fact that he was saying it at all, despite the scorn that the liberal media establishment — then even more monolithic and intolerant than today — could be counted on to heap upon him. Ordinary Americans responded to his jibes and jokes at the expense of liberal shibboleths with the joyous relief of a crowd that has just been told what it long knew but was afraid to admit openly: that the liberal Emperor has no clothes.
Reagan was, in a sense, the first major political figure who was deliberately, provocatively, and entertainingly “politically incorrect,” and it was deeply infectious. As, no doubt, it was intended to be. I’ve always suspected that when he would do something like call the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” — the simple truth plainly spoken, as usual — he not only expected liberals to go ballistic, he was looking forward to it. Liberals in ballistic mode were funny, for one thing; for another, it was an opportunity to show how indifferent he was to their hatred. Look at me, he seemed to say, I don’t give a hoot what they think of me. Why should you?
That was more than an important political lesson — it was a profound character lesson as well. In traditional moral theology, caring more for what others think of you than for what is right or true is known as “the sin of human respect.” Remarkably for a politician, even more so for an actor, Reagan seemed to be totally disinclined to it — and to possess, in abundance, its contrary virtue: the courage to stand alone. In exemplifying that virtue, he inspired it in others. As we bid him goodbye, let’s remember this defining feature of his character — which for me, and doubtless for many of you, is his most valuable and enduring legacy.
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