I have distinct recollections of that historic day January 20, 1981.
First was the setting. I recall that it was a cold, crisp, though not frigid day, certainly nothing like the snowstorm that paralyzed the city during JFK’s inauguration or the frigid conditions just four years later that required Reagan’s second inaugural to be moved indoors. This inaugural was the first to be held on the West side of the Capitol facing out over the entire mall — a symbol of the rise of the Western US that was Reagan’s electoral base and of the Western Pacific Region and the Asian countries beyond which would be of growing importance to the United States.
Second was the drama surrounding the release of the American hostages in Iran, who had by then been held in captivity for over one year. Indeed, at precisely the time Reagan was taking the oath of office, the hostages’ plane had cleared Iranian air space and were finally on their way home, yet another symbol that a new era had indeed dawned.
Finally, there was Reagan’s speech that we just heard, shorter than most such speeches, but crystal clear in its message, just like the campaign that preceded it. It aimed to summarize the main tenets of the new administration, namely that freedom was the best vehicle for improving the lives of ordinary Americans, that in economic matters government was part of the problem, not the solution and that major reductions of the federal government were necessary, that America was a force for good in the world and would actively resist those who would destroy us, and finally that America would engage its opponents economically, militarily, diplomatically, and most importantly, philosophically and rhetorically. The war of ideas was officially on.
It was quite a first day. Reagan’s view of any undertaking was instructive: start strong, complete your task, and leave them wanting more at the end. This was really the structure of his eight year presidency.
Let me make some remarks about Reagan’s political legacy. It is true that despite a lifetime in union politics, California state politics, and national politics, Reagan never considered himself a professional politician. Rather he saw himself as a soldier in a great army, dedicated not to military conquest, but to the belief in the triumph of ideas. That the public never doubted this was part of his political genius. And it is truly remarkable that twenty five years after his first inauguration, Ronald Reagan’s ideas continue to dominate his Republican Party and resonate with the American people at large.
On paper, Reagan’s campaigns were not models of efficiency. His campaign coffers were empty as often as not and he was never the first choice of corporate America. In his losing 1976 effort, for instance, he raised a grand total of $11 million, and that includes the federal matching funds. But Reagan demonstrated that even the best campaign techniques can take you only so far.
Reagan was so much greater than his campaigns. Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers, once noted that “Football is nothing more than blocking and tackling.” In his autobiography, Reagan explained his approach this way, “In politics, gather them together, tell them what you’re going to do, and hope they buy it.” Technology and brilliant political maneuvers took a back seat to such plain talk.
Reagan had a knack for saving his best for key moments in his political life. To use another sports analogy, “Great teams aren’t always great. They’re just great when they have to be.” Reagan was great when he had to be. This was the case in 1976 when after losing five consecutive primaries, he went on national television and made a speech that won the North Carolina primary, turned that race around and brought him within a Clarke Reed endorsement of winning the nomination that year. It was also the case in February 1980 when trailing in New Hampshire, an obviously angry Reagan lectured his host for the evening, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr Green” or when later that year in Illinois, a chargined Reagan sadly asked John Anderson, “John, would you really prefer Teddy Kennedy to me?” And of course there are his most famous political moments. To Jimmy Carter in 1980: “There you go again.” And to Walter Mondale four years later, “I will not exploit for partisan advantage my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” As the Billy Joel song says, “He was quick with the joke.”
But how do we explain Reagan’s extraordinary political success and longevity? Let me give you several factors that made him a compelling political presence. First was his obvious sincerity and strongly held beliefs. Unlike most great orators, he never had to raise his voice to make a key point. He came across as believable precisely because he had ideas that were deeply held and people sensed that. They gave him credit for his beliefs even if they disagreed with him. More politicians should understand that strong principles more often than not trump “triangulation.”
Second was his legendary sense of humor. He had the ability to put small groups or large audiences at ease with a story or joke. And the delivery was as good as the punch line. More often than not, his sharp tongue was directed at himself. Self deprecation is a trait that more politicians should learn. Whether making fun of his age or his work habits, Reagan demonstrated he was the genuine article, that he was very comfortable with who he was and that he was in politics not to be somebody, but to do things for the country.
Third was his sense of optimism that allowed him to present tough policy choices with a pleasing mixture of kindness and self deprecation. He always sought to unite Americans around positive ideas, not divide Americans. His rhetoric could be tough but was seldom angry. In his address to the Republican convention in 1992, for instance, he said, “I hope when I am gone you will remember that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst instincts.” As such, he was able to appeal for votes far beyond traditional Republicans. For Reagan, there were not red or blue states. In two presidential elections, he won 44 and 49 states respectively.
Finally, we must discuss Reagan’s ability to persuade his fellow Americans to support his judgment on key issues. This skill has a more popular name — it is called LEADERSHIP. Leadership is a word tossed around frequently. Reagan had the ability to persuade people to accept his course of action even when they had doubts. Critics of Reagan complained that his personal popularity was always greater than support for his individual policies. They attributed this to his communication skills, which admittedly were considerable. The better answer, though, is leadership. People trusted Reagan and in spite of misgivings, were willing to support his ideas and actions at the most key times. Reagan ranks right there with Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt for memorable speeches and appeals for public support during key moments of his presidency.
The political result was that Reagan remade the GOP in his own image. Before Reagan, the Republican Party was interested more in the size of the deficit rather than the size of government, in détente more than in freedom, and in ducking social issues so important to many blue collar Democrats. Reagan remade the GOP into the party of tax cuts and smaller government, as proponents of a winning strategy to confront and defeat Communism, and as the party that defends the sanctity of life. A whole voting group called “Reagan Democrats” was born. Their ranks included many former Democrats and independents, especially blue collar voters of Southern and Eastern European heritage, Catholics, Southerners and young people, and they helped the GOP to achieve near parity in Party ID with Democrats. The Reagan coalition endures a quarter century after his first election as president. The alliance of free market conservatives, traditional values family advocates, and Americans who support a more muscular foreign policy continues to constitute a governing majority in the United States. In that sense, it has eclipsed in longevity even the New Deal coalition and remains a roadmap for conservative politicians to fashion electoral majorities.
Historical reputations rise and fall. Ronald Reagan’s reputation has had its ups and downs since he retired from the political scene. But we can be confident that no matter who wins the next election or what the public mood might be at any given time, Ronald Reagan’s place in history is secure. His accomplishments will stand the test of time and his presidency is a lasting testament to the twin eternal truths that one man can make a difference and that ideas indeed have consequences.