Politics & Policy

The Defense of Freedom & Metaphysics of Fun

President Reagan celebrates with NR.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This speech was delivered by President Ronald Reagan at National Review’s 30th anniversary dinner on December 5, 1985.

Ladies and gentlemen, I mean it literally when I say it is a delight to be here tonight. The editors, associates, and friends of National Review are celebrated not just for skillful argument and sound polemics, but for the wit, warmth–even merriment–of their gatherings.

#ad#I will admit that like most of his friends, I wonder if Bill Buckley’s well-known regard for fun doesn’t get a little out of hand. A couple of years ago, I made a congratulatory phone call to an anniversary party for Bill Buckley’s telephone show. Now, as you know, Firing Line attracts many important guests, some of whom, however, are also very, very controversial. No sooner had I picked up the phone and said, “Hello,” than Bill’s voice came ringing through: “Mr. President, I’m standing here with Gordon Liddy on my right and Howard Hunt on my left, and we await your orders, sir.”

And once when Bill was asked what job he wanted in the Administration of his friend the President, he replied in his typically retiring and deferential way: “Ventriloquist.”

But when you think about it, the word “fun” really is important to the meaning of National Review and the conservative movement it fostered, a word, as Bill Buckley might put it, that is “transcendentally freighted, resonant with metaphysical meaning and overtone.” By which he would mean (I got used to interpreting in Geneva–so with your permission, Bill) it is a word not very popular in our century. Especially those who preach the supremacy of the state, who think they can remake man and society in the image of a brave new world. For these serious people, earthly paradise is always just around the corner, and evenings like these are bourgeois distractions. Laughter itself is suspect; and even fun is an act of subversion. It is purportedly why Lenin refused to listen to music.

But it is also why all of us are here tonight–to celebrate thirty years of witty, civilized pages from our beloved National Review and the damage, the terminal damage, those pages have done to modern statism and its unrelenting grimness.

Since its beginning in 1955, National Review has argued that politics and state power–like all human endeavors–have their limitations, and that acknowledging those limitations is the beginning of political–even earthly–wisdom. It really is an acknowledgment that God means for us–at least sometimes–to take life as it comes: to woo, to laugh, to love, and to make room, as you have tonight and throughout the thirty-year life span of National Review, for fun.

If any of you doubt the impact of National Review’s verve and attractiveness, take a look around you this evening. The man standing before you was a Democrat when he picked up his first issue in a plain brown wrapper; and even now, as an occupant of public housing, he awaits as anxiously as ever his biweekly edition–without the wrapper. Over here is the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who, besides running a successful presidential campaign in 1980, is the same New York lawyer who drew up the incorporation papers for National Review. Or ask any of the young leaders in the media, academia, or government here tonight to name the principal intellectual influence in their formative years. On this point, I can assure you: National Review is to the offices of the West Wing of the White House what People is to your dentist’s waiting room.

So in standing up, then, for what Russell Kirk might call the metaphysics of fun, I think history will show National Review also launched a spirited and decisive defense of freedom. NR taught several generations of conservatives that it is this recognition of a higher order that enables the individual to stand against the massed power of the modern state and say: No, there is more to life than your budget and bureaus, your camps and constraints.

All of this was against the trend of the time and drew its share of disapproving stares. Just when political commentary had become so ponderous, along comes this spirited, captivating little journal pledging in the now familiar words of its first issue: “It stands athwart history, yelling, Stop…”

Let me now simply and briefly do what I came here to do tonight, and that is, as President of the United States, to salute the editors, associates, and friends of National Review; and on behalf of America, the Free World–and especially the not-so-free world–to thank each one of you for your extraordinary work, your sacrifice, your daring and devotion.

I want to assure you tonight: You didn’t just part the Red Sea–you rolled it back, dried it up, and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you gave to the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.

But if tonight we celebrate National Review as a force for change of hurricane force, we also note tonight that the eye of the hurricane is retiring. Priscilla Buckley is known for her adventurous spirit; nowhere has that spirit been better evidenced than in her willingness to be at the center for almost thirty years of the whirlwind at 150 East 35th Street. That she has come through all this with a reputation unchallenged for journalistic skill and professionalism, as well as the sweetest disposition on the Eastern Seaboard, is testimony to her work and to her life. Tonight, Priscilla, America and its President and all of us honor you and thank you.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, recently a message from Bill Buckley was sent through the White House staff about my remarks here–and I quote–”Bill says this is the thirtieth, and you should say something important like announcing a new Marshall Plan.”

Well, we shall see about a Marshall Plan; but for the moment, perhaps a few concluding remarks on the future of this journal and the conservative movement it fostered are in order. I think most of you are aware that there is now in the nation’s capital a consensus on the need for reducing marginal tax rates–even the Ways and Means Committee proposal, though it is not the bill we asked for, agrees that such high rates are an obstacle to economic growth and initiative.

On another front, not only has the House of Representatives agreed to humanitarian assistance to the Nicaraguan freedom-fighters, it has lifted, largely on its own accord, the ban against helping anti-Communist insurgencies in Africa. I think you will agree that it is a long way to travel: from “Dear Comandante” to spontaneous repeal of the Clark Amendment.

Believe me, there were few articles of faith in the liberal credo more fervently held than: first, a belief in government as the great redistributors of income through punitive tax rates; and second, an adherence to post-Vietnam isolationism and the adolescent notion that anyone brandishing a rifle, wearing green fatigues, and calling himself a socialist revolutionary was worthy of American sympathy and support.

Now the question I want to ask you is this: If at National Review’s last anniversary dinner someone had told you that in a little over four years tax rates could be cut from 70 percent to nearly half of that and that we would be not only helping a growing anti-Communist insurgency in Central America but lifting the prohibition against such assistance in Angola–and that in both cases these changes would be effected by a House of Representatives supposedly dominated by liberal Democrats–wouldn’t you have tagged him or her a hopeless optimist?

Yet it is all happening and will continue to happen. And for this reason: We have reached that point which military historians single out as critical to the outcome of any battle; the point at which one side begins to display a decisive will to win, a kind of psychological dominance over the consciousness of the other. The point at which the adversary is more preoccupied with countering our next tactical move than with changing a strategic picture that he does not even realize is shifting dangerously against him. How many Northern generals, preoccupied, in General McClellan’s words, with what “Bobby Lee will do next,” came to naught because they failed to do what common sense or their own strategic plan dictated? As Yogi Berra said once: “90 percent of this game is half mental.”

And today, the adversaries of conservatives seem sometimes more concerned with our agenda than we are ourselves. It is the kind of slide that, once it begins, is almost impossible to halt. Already some young members of the other party have had to face charges that they are me-too Democrats–what a refreshing ring that has to those of us who remember how a similar expression was used in the Fifties. And I wonder if the day is not too far off when some Democratic presidential candidate sweeps the primaries by declaring, “We are all conservatives now.” And then proudly boasts of his subscription to National Review. Again, without the wrapper.

Ladies and gentlemen, the strategic situation internationally is also changing, and decisively so. While democracies are growing in economic strength, the totalitarian world is in decay and disarray. We see that Marx was right: The economic order is making demands on the political order. But he was wrong about where it would happen. China is only the most remarkable and most recent example. Add to this the growth in democratic institutions around the world. In Asia, the realization that personal freedom means economic growth has made a number of small nations models of economic progress. Even Europe, the birthplace of socialism, is now catching up with the Laffer curve. And it is especially in Europe that we see one of the most important changes I believe this journal has helped to spark: Statism has lost the intellectuals.

So there is, after all, a Marshall Plan to announce here this evening–but not, this time, one confined to Europe or limited to monetary aid. A Marshall Plan of mind and heart and spirit–a Marshall Plan of ideas. Ideas that National Review first promoted: the worth of the individual, the value of personal freedom, the efficacy of the free market, the wisdom of representative, constitutional government, and the rule of law under God.

We know that the permanent things this journal stands for, if given only the slightest bit of breathing space, must and will triumph; it is this spark of life that this journal and the conservative movement have provided.

When he left Communism for the Western side, one editor of the magazine said he understood his defection to mean he was joining the losers. I can think of no better way to pay tribute to his memory–and frankly nothing he would have liked better–than to say: We can affirm here tonight that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. That civilization will triumph. That freedom is the winning side.

One final note: I think eventually the pundits and analysts are going to catch on to the enormous force and deep roots of the conservative movement. Some of them even seem to have finally realized that I actually am one and that I mean it. And when that happens, they are going to realize something not only about this journal, but about its founder and editor: that Bill Buckley is perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era–that he changed our country, indeed our century.

While I am quite certain that this is what history will say, I also know you and I would add something, because you and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion in the critical battle of style and content. And then, suddenly riding up through the mists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.

Like myself, many of you have known and been grateful for Bill’s friendship–like everything else he does, he has made of that too an art form.

So, Bill, one last word to you. We thank you for your friendship. You are, of course, a great man. And so we thank you also for National Review, for setting loose so much good in the world. And, Bill–thanks, too, for all the fun.

God bless you.

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