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Real Reagan
Peter Robinson gets the 40th president.


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John O’Sullivan

On the day that Ronald Reagan left office in January 1989, I had dinner with the Soviet ambassador. He was a guest at three Bush inaugural dinners that night — evidently a man prepared to sacrifice his liver for his country — but he generously stayed at the National Review dinner for two courses and 90 minutes. In that time he electrified the other guests with his remarks on Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union, he said, would not intervene in Eastern Europe if the peoples there decided they wanted non-Communist governments. Questioned closely by his fellow guests William Safire and Jeane Kirkpatrick, he repeated this assurance several times. When he left, we were both excited and somewhat skeptical.

That skepticism was unwarranted. We had just been given a preview of the new Soviet “Sinatra Doctrine” — they can do it their way. Within a year, while the Soviet Union watched from the sidelines, Communist governments fell all over Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall was torn down.

That occurred almost exactly 18 months after Ronald Reagan’s speech in Berlin when he uttered the prophetic injunction: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” At the time these words were considered by sophisticated analysts to be foolish and unrealistic right-wing hyperbole. Yet they both aroused and reflected the passionate rebelliousness of the “captive nations” who seized their liberty two years later — and whose growing resistance to an increasingly rickety structure of Soviet repression was already evident to seasoned observers.

At the time of the 1989 inaugural dinner, for instance, National Review’s roving correspondent, Radek Sikorski, (later deputy foreign minister of Poland), was writing our next cover story on the topic of “the coming crack-up of communism.” Maybe the ambassador had an advance copy.

As these dates suggest, it was Reagan who brought about the collapse of Communism even though the Bush administration handled that collapse with extraordinary diplomatic skill. Or, in the well-known tribute from Margaret Thatcher, he “won the Cold War without firing a shot.”

Yet Reagan received little credit for this at the time. Even as Communist regimes were toppling like ninepins, his reputation was in decline. Some Bush administration officials sought to boost their boss at Reagan’s expense. Academic historians gave him poor ratings in rather silly surveys of presidential greatness. And the liberal left repeated the dismissive formula of Washington insider Clark Clifford that Reagan was an “amiable dunce” who had simply been standing by when things went right.

In recent years, however, Reagan’s reputation has risen again to reflect his undoubted achievements. Several biographies have contributed to this revival, even the much criticized official biography, Dutch by Edmund Morris, by demonstrating that Reagan was a much more attentive and diligent chief executive than either the media or even self-described “insiders” realized at the time.

But Reagan has done much of this repair work himself. Martin Anderson, a former Reagan aide, collected and published an impressive collection of Reagan’s columns and radio talks. His love letters to Nancy Reagan and his voluminous correspondence with ordinary Americans were also turned into books. And all these showed not an “amiable dunce” but a thoughtful, well-informed and acute mind (and, in the case of the love letters, a devoted heart.)

Now there comes along an important book that gives us still deeper insights into the former president by a former speechwriter — indeed, by the man who actually wrote the Berlin speech calling for the Wall to be torn down. In How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson tells how he studied Reagan closely, partly in order to solve the mystery of how such a nice guy came to be president — and partly because he was unsatisfied with his own slightly directionless life and felt he needed a role model. [Full disclosure: I know Peter Robinson, I have appeared on his television program, and we are both former speechwriters €” and both living denials of the cynical aphorism that no man is a hero to his valet.]

Robinson’s study of Reagan, made easier and deeper by the access a speechwriter enjoys, has produced a moving account of how the president developed and improved his character (and, by extension, how Peter Robinson, you and I can do the same thing.) To use traditional language, Reagan cultivated the habits of virtue — in particular, diligence, unselfish love, and prayer.

Reagan jokingly encouraged the idea of his own laziness, but in fact he worked steadily at being president. The papers he took to the personal quarters at night would all be marked and annotated in the morning. The Democrat counsel to the Irangate committee was astonished, on reading Reagan’s private journals, to find a chief executive thoroughly conversant with all the issues.

He was devoted to his wife — as she to him — in part because he credited her with saving him from a pointless and ultimately despairing life after his reluctant divorce from Jane Wyman.

He was a man of faith. As is well-known, he credited God with saving him from assassination for some higher purpose. His private journals are full of prayer. His national-security adviser and close friend, Judge William Clark, claims that he knew when the president was praying — he would look upwards and close his eyes — at Cabinet meetings.

Yet with the exception of his love for Nancy, Reagan avoided talking about such personal matters. He did not wear his virtues on his sleeve. He was a serious man with a light touch.

Fittingly, this is a serious book with a light touch. It makes many of its most important points by telling one of the many good Reagan stories.

On one occasion, for instance, Reagan was told the French government wanted to award him the Croix de Guerre.

“That’s for bravery,” he says, and his face darkens. “All I did was fly a desk. I couldn’t possibly accept the Croix de Guerre.”

When the report is corrected and he is told he is to receive the Legion d’Honneur instead, he remains uncertain. He asks: “What for?” and is told “statesmanship.”

“Statesmanship?” He relaxes. “I can play that role.”

Indeed he could. He made the part his own. But he would not take the credit for virtues to which he felt he could lay no claim.

Reagans reputation continues to rise. Just recently Radek Sikorski, now executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, held a conference in Warsaw at which a number of distinguished East Europeans paid tribute to the president who had maneuvered their oppressors into liberating them.

Alas, his mind clouded by Alzheimer’s, the old actor can no longer hear the applause. So perhaps those who live in the freer world his statesmanship established, even the agnostics among us, should offer a little light prayer on his behalf.

— John O’Sullivan is currently editor-in-chief of United Press International and editor-designate of The National Interest. O’Sullivan can be reached at www.benadorassociates.com.

 



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