How to sum up the life of Ronald Wilson Reagan, lifeguard, actor, labor-union president, television personality, governor, columnist, lecturer, president? His long goodbye, as his memory dimmed and personality disappeared through the tragic impact of Alzheimer’s, cannot obscure his role as one of America’s greatest, and most optimistic, advocates of freedom.
As the new millennium dawns, with capitalism ascendant, communism defunct, and liberalism discredited, we easily forget the world 40 years ago when Ronald Reagan entered politics. Free enterprise seemed to be operating on borrowed time, “saved” only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The Soviet Union was thought to be making giant economic strides; newly independent states the world over were choosing autarkic collectivism.
Communism was on the march. Nikita Krushchev vowed to bury America and China appeared to be the vanguard of a revolutionary parade around the globe. Communism sprouted just off America’s coast in Cuba and would soon swallow much of Southeast Asia, despite the sacrifice of more than 50,000 American lives.
America’s political agenda was set by the Left. Only a brief interregnum under war hero Dwight Eisenhower interrupted a steady expansion of federal power. New laws and bureaucracies multiplied even when Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, held state and national office. Reagan’s sparkling speech on behalf of 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was far overshadowed by the latter’s overwhelmingly defeat by Lyndon Johnson, architect of the “Great Society.”
After that disaster, spokesmen for liberty were hard to find. There were a handful of brilliant, combative intellectuals making the case for freedom. F. A. Hayek penned the devastating The Road to Serfdom; Milton Friedman turned out the equally compelling Capitalism and Freedom. Both continued to write and both later received the Nobel prize for economics.
William F. Buckley edited National Review, churned out newspaper columns, and spoke widely. A hardy journalistic band of like-minded conservatives and libertarians wrote for NR and a few allied publications.
But the political movement was divided and dispirited. There were only a couple generals with few privates to carry on the fight. Who could be optimistic in such a world? Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Indeed, optimism was his dominant character trait. The political times might have been dark; not so Reagan’s assessment of liberty’s prospects. In 1966 he ran for governor, upending the Democratic incumbent in a massive upset. His 1968 presidential campaign was abortive, but he easily won reelection in 1970. In 1976 came the narrow, heartbreaking loss to accidental incumbent Gerald R. Ford, who went on to defeat by Jimmy Carter.
The world further darkened. Federal spending rose. Intrusive programs multiplied. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. America’s president expressed surprise at Moscow’s lies. Drivers stood in gas lines. The Iranians seized the U.S. embassy. Americans suffered stagflation. Through it all, Jimmy Carter disclaimed any responsibility, spoke of malaise, and warned of tougher times.
Again, Ronald Reagan challenged the odds. Today we remember his two landslide presidential victories, but when I signed onto his campaign, just out of law school, on August 1, 1979, the odds looked long. The dozen-member Republican field included big-spending John Connolly of Texas and GOP everything George H.W. Bush; still influential Jerry Ford considered entering late. Jimmy Carter led in the polls and hoped for a Reagan nomination.
Campaign chief John Sears implemented a “Rose Garden without the Rose Garden” campaign strategy, leading to a disastrous loss in Iowa and predictions of Reagan’s imminent political demise. Reagan responded by hopping onto a bus in New Hampshire and running even his staff ragged; “I paid for this microphone,” he declared when debating badly outmatched George H.W. Bush.
Reagan won big in New Hampshire and ran away with the convention. Then came a general election filled with race baiting, charges of extremism, and miscues about “killer trees.”
But a last-minute debate highlighted the contrast between a warm, friendly Reagan and a nasty, humorless Carter. Americans tired of economic decline and especially of being blamed for that decline; they also worried about international challenges, especially the continuing spectacle of their hostage countrymen in Tehran, no closer to release after a year of captivity. Reagan won in a landslide, confounding liberals horrified by the candidacy of an ignorant cowboy.
President Reagan’s policy achievements were vitally important, but ultimately mixed. He started strong with budget and spending cuts, but ended up accepting a raft of tax hikes and presiding over a bigger and more expensive government. He defended the All-Volunteer Force, turned missile defense into a genuine policy, and reversed the perception of Soviet advance versus American decline. Yet the U.S. failed to devolve any defense responsibilities on prosperous and populous allies, which increasingly acted as international welfare queens. The assassination attempt, aging process, and Iran-Contra scandal all contributed to sap his energy and his administration’s momentum.
Still, Reagan infused Americans with his optimistic outlook while confronting America’s, and freedom’s, enemies abroad. He unashamedly extolled the virtues of liberty. He reminded Americans that they had always achieved the seeming impossible. He called the Soviet Union what it was, an evil empire. He challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on the latter’s professed humanitarian vision by banning nuclear weapons and tearing down the Berlin Wall.
Even more stunning, Reagan’s vision, so often derided as simplistic and unrealistic, became reality. The U.S. dominates the world. Where but America do other peoples look for cultural, economic, military, philosophical, and technological leadership? Communism–the Soviet Union, its ragged gaggle of allies, and flood of Third World impersonators–has disappeared into history’s dustbin.
The U.S. and Russia are reducing their nuclear arsenals and the Bush administration is preparing to deploy missile defenses. The Berlin Wall, perhaps the most powerful symbol of totalitarian oppression, dictators’ fear of freedom, and perceived permanence of Europe’s division, is gone, swept aside by millions of Germans demanding liberty.
Indeed, we are truly living in Ronald Reagan’s world. The challenges that America faces are immense. But few doubt that we will meet those challenges.
The world complains, fusses, and whines about U.S. arrogance and hegemony. But no other state combines such ambition, commitment, competence, energy, and, yes, optimism. The 21st Century might end up as the Chinese Century, or the Indian Century, or maybe some other Century. But it is beginning like the last one ended, as the American Century. However irritating it might be to America’s critics, the U.S. remains the shining city on the hill.
Moreover, America’s animating force comes from private people in private industry and private charity. Forget the Politics of Meaning, and similar statist fantasies. The 20th Century was, in historian Paul Johnson’s words, the age of politics. The politicians used their opportunity to inflict mass poverty, oppression, and murder. There has been no more disastrous social experiment in history.
Now inventors and doctors, businessmen and engineers, clerics and hackers, and artists and philanthropists will get their turn. We are developing new medicines, finding new sources of energy, and creating new ways to communicate. Our technological vistas have never seemed wider. The 21st Century looks to be the age of entrepreneurship, when civil society will regain the dominance that it temporarily lost to the politicians. Get out of people’s way, Ronald Reagan long demanded of government. If it does not, the people now seem committed to pushing it out of the way.
Of course, there is more than the material to life, and Reagan worried about the larger moral environment within which we live. But he understood that virtue was not possible without freedom. Although liberty may not be the highest human goal, it is the highest political goal, without which the attainment of most other objectives is impossible.
How to remember Ronald Reagan? He was personally friendly and engaging, warm and concerned about even young staffers such as myself. He was bright, focused on the big picture rather than policy minutiae. He was passionate about achieving a free society, and convinced that a free society was the best way to achieve a just and prosperous one as well.
Most important, he was an optimist. He believed in himself and America. And the ability of a free people to work together to better themselves and those around them. Of his optimism we should be profoundly grateful, for we are its primary beneficiaries. He died without knowing how right he had been. We know.
–Doug Bandow served as special assistant to the president in the Reagan White House and senior policy analyst in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign.