As President George W. Bush prepares the West for war against Iraq and Ronald Reagan turns 92, this seems a particularly poignant time to reflect on the nature of political courage. While several observers have drawn parallels between these two men, few have recognized that it is the quality of their courage that makes them so different and ultimately successful.
Reagan came by his courage through personal experience. In 1946, when he opposed a violent Hollywood strike, the lives of his children were threatened. Warner Brothers Studio arranged for a weapons permit and bought him a .32 caliber pistol to protect his home. During those tense times he would often sit up at night in his living room, pistol by his side, to guard his children. When violent strikers encircled the Warner Brothers studio, security advised stars to sneak onto the studio lot through a drainage ditch. Reagan refused, insisting that he be allowed to go through the front gate. Despite the fact that dozens of cars had already been overturned, he went through the gauntlet of people in a car.
During the turbulent late 1960s when he was governor, Reagan was a constant target of scorn and attack. The Weather Underground literally kept a bullet with his name on it at their secret headquarters in Flint, Michigan. In 1968, while governor, he was awakened one morning by the sound of gunfire. Running down the hall of his Sacramento home in his pajamas, he was met by a Secret Service agent who explained that two men with a firebomb had been spotted outside his children’s bedroom.
In 1976, the FBI uncovered another plot to kill him, this time involving a radical group in San Francisco. During those years, aides remember Reagan being sent everything from threatening letters to a mortician’s needle with the threat that he would need one soon.
But through it all, he never wavered.
Once he became president, Reagan’s greatest triumphs in the international arena were accomplished without much support from our allies. Save Margaret Thatcher in Britain, our major European allies resisted his hard-line on Afghanistan, human rights in Poland, SDI, and the defense build-up.
For George W. Bush the route has been different. During his formative years in the 1960s, he meticulously avoided the tumult of public debate. When he lived in Texas, he was not exposed to circumstances that would test his courage. Still, he seems to be following the track laid down by Reagan.
George W. Bush’s courage comes less from experience than from innate qualities. He has shown the same immunity to outside pressures that Reagan possessed. Family members explain that he reads the newspapers regularly, with all the derisive attacks on his intelligence and abilities. But it doesn’t phase him; he has little need for acceptance by the Washington establishment. He his comfortable with himself and confident. And like Reagan during the Cold War, he understands that leadership means leading, even if those following are reluctant.
He also recognizes that courage requires fearlessness in making decisions. During the cold war, Reagan derided the fact that leaders were making decisions out of “fear of the bomb”; it seemed to prevent them from making difficult choices. Bush has used the same reasoning when discussing possible war against Iraq.
Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” argued that there were two types of people. Foxes pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, relate everything to a single central vision, a single universal organizing principle that defines what they think and believe. American politics is populated by foxes; Reagan and George W. Bush are hedgehogs. History demonstrates that such a singular commitment to purpose takes courage — and makes great leaders.
As on Reagan’s birthday, as war appears imminent, both men should be applauded for the quality of their courage. No doubt the world is learning about George W. Bush what they wrote once about Reagan in his KGB file: “His word and deed are one in the same.”
— Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. He is presently working on The Bushes, which will be published by Doubleday next year.