Ronald Reagan was not an accidental leader. He possessed certain personal characteristics that set him apart from other seemingly as talented and ambitious men and women. Physically, he had remarkable vitality and stamina. He did not need energizer batteries to keep going through crises and challenges that would have hospitalized the rest of us.
Mentally, he was able to penetrate quickly to the heart of a matter and to shift from issue to issue with little apparent effort.
Philosophically, he had a set of core beliefs from which he rarely strayed. He did not hesitate to go against the popular grain if he thought it was in the best interests of America.
And he was a leader, a historic leader, because he embodied the four essential qualities of leadership–courage, prudence, justice, and wisdom.
First, courage. Who can forget that when he was shot on March 30, 1981, President Reagan seemed to spend most of his time reassuring everyone that he was not seriously hurt (although he nearly died from a would-be assassin’s bullet)?
When Nancy first saw her wounded husband in the trauma room at George Washington University Hospital, he greeted her by saying, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” As his bed was wheeled into the operating room, the president caught sight of his distraught aides Ed Meese, Jim Baker, and Mike Deaver, and asked with a wink, “Who’s minding the store?” As he was being prepared for surgery, Reagan looked up at the assembled surgeons and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” “Today,” responded one doctor, “everyone’s a Republican.”
Reflecting on the attempted assassination, Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey wrote that “the stuff of successful leadership is finally an accumulation of adversities bluntly confronted and firmly mastered.”
President Reagan exhibited political courage when he disregarded the conventional wisdom that called for a tax increase in a time of economic downturn and instead pushed hard for tax cuts in his Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. Newsweek called the act a “second New Deal potentially as profound in its import as the first was a half century ago.” Within a year, the president’s tax reform had ignited an unparalleled period of economic growth in the 1980s and is a major reason for the prosperity we enjoy today.
Reagan displayed courage in deciding that the policy of containment was not working and that the time had come not merely to contain Communism but to defeat it. In March 1983, he delivered a powerful one-two punch to Moscow, asserting that the Soviets were the masters “of an evil empire,” and announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). More than any other single Reagan initiative, SDI signaled to the Soviets they could not win an arms race with America and persuaded them to sue for peace on the West’s terms.
With regard to the quality of prudence, consider the Reagan Doctrine. Rather than dispatch hundreds of airplanes and tens of thousands of troops around the world, President Reagan assisted pro-freedom anti-Communist forces in carefully selected key countries like Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia.
The Reagan Doctrine was the most cost-effective of all the Cold War doctrines, costing the United States only an estimated half-billion dollars a year and yet forcing the cash-strapped Soviets to spend several times that amount to deflect the impact. The Doctrine resulted in a Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the election of a democratic government in Nicaragua, and the removal of 40,000 Cuban troops from Angola and the holding of UN-monitored elections there.
Third, there is the quality of justice. Although it was not politically correct, President Reagan steadfastly defended the rights of every American from the moment of conception to that of natural death. He insisted that his administration did not have a separate social agenda, economic agenda, and foreign agenda. It had one agenda, based on the principles of limited government, individual freedom and responsibility, peace through strength, and Judeo-Christian values.
Fourth, there is the quality of wisdom–the ability to see and foresee what others cannot. Liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared after a 1982 visit to Moscow, “Those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink, are … only kidding themselves.”
Two years later, the liberal establishment’s favorite economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, published a glowing appraisal of Soviet economics, explaining that “the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” Was Professor Galbraith, in his praise of the Soviets’ “full” use of manpower, referring to the Gulag?
While Schlesinger was pooh-poohing the possibility of a Soviet collapse and Galbraith was praising the Soviets for their “efficient” use of manpower, President Reagan gave a prophetic address to British members of Parliament at Westminster. He said that the Soviet Union was gripped by a “great revolutionary crisis” and that a “global campaign for freedom” would ultimately prevail. In one of the most memorable utterances of his presidency, Reagan predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”
Ronald Reagan is already being judged as one of the great American presidents. I predict that even as the first half of the 20th century is usually described as the Age of Roosevelt, the last half of the 20th century will be called the Age of Reagan.
Just as FDR led America out a great economic depression, Reagan lifted a traumatized country out of a great psychological depression, induced by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and sustained by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Carter malaise.
Reagan used the same political instruments as Roosevelt–the major address to Congress and the fireside chat with the people–and the same optimistic, uplifting rhetoric. But although Roosevelt and Reagan both appealed to the best in America, there was a major philosophical difference between the two presidents: Roosevelt turned to government to solve problems, while Reagan turned to the people.
Reagan led Americans to believe in themselves and the future again. He led them to accept that they did not need the welfare state to solve all of their economic and social problems. And he looked the Soviets in the eye and saw they were not ten feet tall.
Ronald Reagan’s trust in the people and his love of freedom were rooted in the wisdom and philosophy of the Founders. Indeed, more than once, he sounded like one of them.
President Reagan ended his farewell address to the nation in January 1989 by referring to a “shining city upon a hill,” a phrase borrowed from the Pilgrim leader John Winthrop, and by asking:
“And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. … And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
And then, having started an economic expansion that continues to this day, having ended the Cold War without firing a shot, and having restored Americans’ confidence in themselves, Ronald Reagan quietly went home.
–Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, is the author of many books about American conservatism, including the first political biography of Ronald Reagan.