Washington is rarely so hypocritical as when a great man dies, and so we are hearing that in Reagan’s time, politics were more genteel. The nastiness of today is said to have come later, presumably during the recent unpleasantness having to do with the impeachment of Clinton. But it is not so. Reagan was subjected to the same personal vilification as Bush is today, and was called many of the same names: stupid, unprepared, a puppet of more clever people, an ideologue, and so forth. Reagan was often said to be unable to deliver a coherent English sentence without an index card to read from. And the media were desperate to defeat him. In fact, a few days before his triumphant reelection in 1984, James Reston of the New York Times wrote that never before had so many journalists, editors, producers, and broadcasters done so much to defeat a candidate as they had to defeat Reagan, but alas they had failed. You can’t ask for a better source than that.
Reagan had the last laugh, both in the election and in the war against the Soviet Empire. In all likelihood, the stereotype that the intelligentsia created–the fool in the White House–worked to his advantage, because it gave him more room to do what he did best: defeat his enemies, and do it with grace, wit, and modesty. And in the process, he exceeded his own expectations. Not only did he destroy the Soviet Empire, but he launched a global democratic revolution that transformed the political universe.
Pope John Paul II understood this (he and Reagan, more than anyone else, were the two men who changed the world), and sent a subtle message to President Bush the day before Reagan died. If you read the full text of the pope’s statement to Bush, instead of the one phrase taken out of context and then deconstructed by the media, you will find that the pontiff asked the president to give warm regards to the Reagans. No other American president was mentioned. I will always believe that that was John Paul’s way of saying to Bush, “be Reagan’s heir, not your father’s son.” President Bush can advance Reagan’s democratic revolution, and I think the pope was encouraging him to do it.
The Left truly hates Reagan, and those who worked with him, because he demonstrated the emptiness of their greatest conceit: that the ideals embodied in the Communist revolution were both just and destined to triumph. The Leftist intelligentsia will never forgive him and his people for destroying the Soviet Empire, and they still strive desperately to pretend that he didn’t do it. But it won’t work.
Reagan also drove his critics crazy because they couldn’t get to him with their usual methods. He wasn’t interested in winning the “strange new respect” award for erstwhile conservatives who adopt Leftist causes. He didn’t want to go teach at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He could care less about his clippings in The New York Review of Books. And he’d rather be alone with Nancy than attend a power dinner at Mrs. Graham’s house. He knew who he was, he was entirely comfortable with that knowledge, and he didn’t want to be one of them.
That’s the source of the inner strength that made him one of our four greatest presidents. He joins Washington, Lincoln, and FDR in the pantheon of American political leaders who fundamentally changed the world.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.