The Reagan Library and Lessons for America in 2006

Callista and I had a wonderful visit to the Reagan Library on Friday. Mrs. Reagan was a wonderful hostess, and more than 700 people came to a talk I gave on President Reagan’s lessons in leadership and how they applied to our current problems.

Walking through this beautiful library with its stirring pictures and videos of President and Mrs. Reagan and with all the reminders of President Reagan’s great achievements, I couldn’t help but reflect on the gap between what he did and what we are doing in Washington today.

Let me share a few of the lessons that leaped out at me on Friday.

Lesson #1: How Reagan would have handled North Korea in the short run.

There is an F-14 just outside the Reagan Library. It is a memorial to the Reagan commitment to standing up to dictators. After four years of Jimmy Carter’s weakness, the world no longer believed America had the strength to stand up for its values and its interests.

Twenty-five years ago, in the Gulf of Sidra, American naval aircraft (F-14 fighters) crossed what Qaddafi had called “the line of death.” The Libyans challenged us, and we shot down two Libyan fighter planes. We had reasserted freedom of the seas and given the world proof that a new leader was bringing new strength.

There is also a display about the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike, when Reagan fired all the controllers engaged in an illegal strike — reminding the nation that breaking the law has consequences. They thought their importance to the air traffic control system gave them the power to blackmail America. President Reagan knew that if he caved in to the air traffic controllers, there would be an even bigger test two months later when the postal workers’ contract expired. He stood firm.

Gorbachev said, years later, that it was the mental toughness Reagan displayed in firing the air traffic controllers that convinced him Reagan meant what he said and would fight if necessary.

Compare that experience with the fact that the entire civilized world said in July that it would be “unacceptable” for North Korea to fire missiles. In response, North Korea chose our Independence Day to fire seven missiles. They tested the “unacceptable.” It turned out to be acceptable. Is it any wonder that North Korea has now tested a nuclear weapon?

Reagan would have found a variety of steps to make it extremely expensive for the North Koreans to display contempt for the entire civilized world (remember, in 1986, Reagan ordered an American air strike on Libya for killing two American servicemen in a Berlin nightclub).

For President Reagan, “unacceptable” would have meant “unacceptable.”

Lesson #2: How Reagan would have handled North Korea in the long run.

President Reagan entered office in 1981 with a clear vision of allying with Prime Minister Thatcher of Great Britain and Pope John Paul II to defeat the Soviet Empire. Without firing a shot, they worked to strengthen the Solidarity trade union in Poland, increase the resources available to the Polish people and undermine the effectiveness of the Communist dictatorship. Within 11 years of Reagan’s inauguration, the Soviet Union disappeared. The Cold War was over. We had won.

North Korea is a vicious dictatorship in the middle of a famine. Its policies have shrunk the height of the average North Korean by more than three inches over the last generation through malnutrition. There are more than 200,000 North Koreans imprisoned in concentration camps. It is an evil regime grinding down the lives of its people.

A Reaganite strategy would funnel every penny of help and every bit of food aid through a system of private activity consciously designed to undermine the dictatorship.

A Reaganite strategy would isolate the government while helping the people. It would seek every angle to get humanitarian aid to the people. Food might be parachuted into the country, delivered from submarines and small boats by clandestine services, shipped in from China and Russia through anti-regime middlemen and delivered in every way possible to divert energy and authority away from the government and toward an alternative organizing system of individuals dedicated to a better, more prosperous life. Just as in Eastern Europe, we would rapidly discover a lot of people willing to subvert the regime for better lives for their families, and we would find the regime beginning to splinter and fragment in the face of opportunities for food, goods and prosperity.

Lesson #3: How President Reagan would have dealt with economic success.

We are in the midst of declining unemployment, relatively stable prices, declining gasoline prices and near-record stock markets. Yet the elite media is doing everything it can to avoid telling people the good news that Republican policies have worked.

President Reagan understood this. He once said, “I knew the economy was improving when the news media quit calling it Reagonomics.”

Republicans should adopt the Reagan principles of clarity, optimism, cheerfulness and repetition and keep reminding people that cutting taxes to encourage entrepreneurs has worked and that Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel’s promise to raise every tax cut if his party takes over the House (he would become the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee) would be a disaster that would lead to slower growth, less take-home pay and more unemployment. If we do not make the argument, we can hardly expect to win it.

Lesson #4: How President Reagan would have dealt with the aftermath of Foley’s resignation and the Democrat claim to have moral legitimacy on corruption and sexual behavior.

In 1980, then-candidate Reagan used the phrase “there you go again” to communicate to the American people that President Jimmy Carter was lying in attacking the Reagan record. It was devastatingly simple and effective.

Nancy Pelosi, Teddy Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barney Frank and other Democrats have no standing to attack Republicans over cleaning up Congress. However, Republicans have to have the nerve to stand up and set the record straight. The 1980 Reagan campaign was a model of insisting on the truth and one that we should use to be crystal clear about who has been tough in stopping sexual predators and who has promoted and protected sexual predators. That is not a debate the San Francisco Democrats can win if we are direct, candid and firm on the facts.

Lesson #5: How President Reagan would have convinced the American people that we truly have to worry about weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass death.

President Reagan understood that educating the American people and convincing them that a problem was real and a solution was necessary was at the heart of his job.

He knew that, if he could not convince the American people, he could not sustain the support he needed in the Congress. He also knew that Joseph Napolitan was right when he said “you should never underestimate the intelligence of the American people nor overestimate the amount of information they have.”

When you visit the Reagan Library and look at the actual text of his radio commentaries from the 1970s or the texts of his talks with the American people during his presidency, it is amazing how fact filled and compelling they are.

President Reagan was a great educator far more than he was a great communicator.

He knew that historic challenges required historic actions and that those actions could only be undertaken by an aroused, informed and mobilized American people.

Faced with the current threat of terrorists and dictators who seek nuclear weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons of mass murder, I believe President Reagan would have concluded that the level of education needed was beyond any speech or even set of speeches.

I think that, faced with this threat, President Reagan would have called on the Congress to authorize three exercises a year by the Department of Homeland Security. Two of the exercises would involve a simulated nuclear attack on an American city. The third would involve an engineered biological attack on a region.

President Reagan would have understood that the experience of a simulated nuclear or biological attack would educate the American people and the American news media in ways that no Presidential speech could rival.

Because of his faith in the innate intelligence and wisdom of the American people, President Reagan would have been confident that the annual practice of responding to disasters on this scale would rapidly produce the commitment needed to ensure that America had a robust national security system and an effective homeland security system.

The Reagan Principles: Leadership, Education and Implementation

President Reagan was the second most effective President of the 20th Century (surpassed only by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served 12 years and carried America through both the Great Depression and the Second World War).

President Reagan was successful because he understood principles of leadership, education and implementation, which are seldom studied or understood by most Washington politicians. They would all do well to visit the Reagan Library and consider how much they could learn about serving our times as well as President Reagan served his.
Your friend,

Newt Gingrich

P.S.—As you listen to Nancy Pelosi promise to clean up what she calls a “swamp” of congressional problems, remember the following facts from her record:

  1. Pelosi voted three times to make a convicted page sexual predator, former Congressman Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), chair of a congressional committee.
  2. In 1990, Pelosi voted against censuring Barney Frank for having his live-in boyfriend run a prostitution ring from Frank’s apartment.
  3. Pelosi raised no objections when Clinton pardoned Democrat Congressman Mel Reynolds (Ill.) who had been convicted of felonies for having had sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker.

The historic Nancy Pelosi is an authentic representative of San Francisco liberal values and hardly has the record to lecture anyone on cleaning up the Congress.

Ask Newt    

Each week, this newsletter features questions from its readers. Have a question? Send an email to Newt at

I am a Georgetown Law student who heard Mr. Gingrich speak at Justice O’Connor’s and Justice Breyer’s Judicial Independence Conference.

During the conference, Mr. Gingrich made the argument that when courts make decisions that are out of line with public opinion, they should be sanctioned in some way (including the distant possibility of jurisdiction stripping). I wonder what Mr. Gingrich would say to the counterargument that the framers intended precisely to create a branch of government that could counter the “terror of the majority” — that precisely because the framers feared majority rule, they imbued the judiciary with essentially life-time appointments.

Sometimes the public reacts immediately in an overemotional way, and — as the framers foresaw — someone who will not be immediately elected needs to step in. Should the public opinion be so fundamentally contrary to the opinions of the judiciary, the framers provided a framework for appropriate inter-branch dialogue to remedy the situation, rather than bully the judiciary out of existence. Isn’t there something fundamentally important that should be preserved, as intended by the framers, of having a branch not immediately responsive to majority public opinion?

Georgetown Law School

Thank you, Elizabeth, for the thoughtful question. Indeed, an entire book could be written addressing it alone, so I admit up front that this limited space will be inadequate to answer it fully.

The framers did not fear majority rule as you suggest. Rather, they explicitly created — in substantial part — a system of majoritarian rule. Nevertheless, the framers were careful to make this majority subject to several inherent limitations designed to maximize individual liberty and minimize the chances of a coercive majority. First, the government would only be able to act under the enumerated powers in the Constitution. Second, the framers were careful to define in the Bill of Rights several fundamental liberties that no majority could ever abridge. Third, the framers created three co-equal branches of government, each with its own powers to check and balance the other two branches of government.

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned of the danger of rule by “factions,” by which he meant a group of people, whether a minority or majority united by a “common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

What Madison meant by “faction” is very similar to what I think you mean by your phrase “terror of the majority.” Madison was aware that corruption by factions could overtake our representatives and betray the interests of the people. Nevertheless, he concluded that eliminating the causes of factions is impossible, so the solution is to build a system of governance that mitigates their effects. And a key defense against this danger was the large size of the American republic: A national legislature with representatives from different states has a greater variety of parties. The competition between them prevents any one faction from gaining control.

Also, the bicameral federal Congress was constructed, in part, to find a balance between both representation for the will of the people and stability against fleeting passions. Therefore, every member of the House of Representatives is up for election every two years while senators are elected for six years terms so only one-third of the body is up for election in any election cycle. The Senate is constitutionally designed as a buffer against fleeting expressions of popular will.

I think it is relevant to your question that nowhere in Federalist No. 10 does Madison contemplate that the judiciary would play a role in controlling factions. Consistent with Madison’s omission of any mention of the judiciary in Federalist No. 10 to guard against the dangers of factions is Alexander Hamilton observation in Federalist No. 78 that the judiciary “will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.”

In short, our framers were very deliberate about constructing a constitutional system whose various sources of popular legitimacy and internal checks and balances would ensure that the majority that passed laws reflected a broad-based and durable national will. The elected branches, not the judiciary, were intended to be the chief protectors of the Constitution. The framers most certainly did not intend, as you suggest in your counterargument, that the federal judiciary alone would be supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson said it best:

To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. Their maxim is … good justice is broad jurisdiction, and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves.

Finally, I make no argument for disregarding any decisions of the Supreme Court, whether such court decisions are popular or not. I merely draw attention to the clear constitutional powers of the elected branches of government to check and balance decisions of the judicial branch. I believe such a constitutional exercise of checks and balances with respect to the judicial branch would likely occur in only rare and narrow circumstances.

If you wish to understand one historical example of this exercise, read Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in which he explains his careful and narrow approach to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. Nevertheless, should the federal judiciary fail to exercise judicial restraint and instead make future rulings wildly at odds with the overwhelming national will expressed in the rule of law, then a response from the elected branches of government is surely inevitable.

Here a clear example is any future Supreme Court decision on the 1954 federal law that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2002, the Ninth Circuit found the 1954 addition of the words “under God” unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court reversed on technical grounds. A new case before the Ninth Circuit is once again arguing that the words “under God” in the Pledge are unconstitutional. Ninety-one percent of the American people support the words “under God” in the Pledge. In the wake of the 2002 Ninth Circuit decision, the Congress explicitly reaffirmed the words “under God” in the Pledge — and the 1954 law that inserted them — by a vote of 99-0 in the Senate and 401-5 in the House. This reflects an overwhelming expression of the national will expressed in the rule of law. The federal judiciary would be wise to take note.