EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the June 28, 2004, issue of National Review.
Success tends to end controversy. After we won the Cold War, we discovered that everyone had been an anti-Communist. If almost everyone could join in the celebration of Ronald Reagan’s life occasioned by his death, it is because many of the specific issues that animated his political career–the Soviet Union, inflation, confiscatory rates of marginal taxation–are no longer issues; and they are no longer issues because Reagan won.
It is not, of course, true that we are all Reaganauts now. Conservatives feel Reagan’s loss more keenly. He was one of ours: the first, so far the only, president drawn from conservative-movement ranks. And while Reagan’s program of 1980 and 1981 is out of date, the principles that inspired it are not. Conservatives can still learn from his example.
The lesson we should take is not the one that has been most often drawn in the days since his death: that we should at all times be genial, optimistic, and sunny. Reagan’s remarkable courtesy and lack of bitterness even when provoked are indeed worthy of emulation. But we should not forget that Reagan could be stern. He never shrank from tough moral judgments, as in his condemnation of the evil empire and opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He was ruthless in sacking aides, far more so than the “compassionate conservative” now in office. He never denied that America had prospects to fear. He warned that it faced continued stagnation and weakness if it re-elected Jimmy Carter. What he affirmed was that we had the freedom to act against those fears. His virtue was not “optimism,” but courage, albeit a courage rooted in confidence about American principles and about Providence.
Thanks to his leadership, the emphasis of American conservatism shifted in the 1980s from the dangers of action to the opportunities of freedom. Americans did not have to accept mutual assured destruction and coexistence with the Soviet Union. Republicans did not have to accept the inexorable growth of the central government and find ways to pay for it. This was the ideological content of Reagan’s much-remarked hope: why he could promise morning in America rather than a long twilight struggle.
But Reagan was no mere ideologue. For one thing, his view of liberty was more complex than out-of-context snippets from his speeches would suggest. The same president who famously said that “government is the problem, not the solution” also said that the state was a desirable “form of moral order.” The fact that public faith in the government rose under Reagan is sometimes said to be ironic. But Reagan wanted a government that was competent in the attainment of its legitimate ends. For another thing, Reagan was a conservative statesman. His program was suited to the circumstances he found. He set priorities, which meant that lower priorities were sacrificed. He correctly judged it more important to win the Cold War than to shrink the state. Conservatives correctly judged his successes more important than his disappointments and defeats.
It is also instructive that Reagan spoke more often about the Founders than did his nine predecessors combined. Leading a conservatism that included, then as now, many factions and tensions, Reagan united it around a cause that was simple enough to be compelling and complex enough to contain many truths: the recovery of the political inheritance bequeathed us by the Founders. Reagan, the forward-looking optimist of fable, gave his last Oval Office address on the erasure of American historical memory. He did his part to prevent that erasure, and now has become part of that memory: one last swimmer brought back to shore.