Politics & Policy

Reagan’s Sense

He understood both what was important and what made sense in the world we inhabit.

During that momentous presidential campaign of 1980, I was working informally with Tony Dolan in the speechwriting shop of the Reagan campaign in Arlington. As I used to say, I wrote some of the best things Ronald Reagan never said: As far as I know, none of the gems I put down–none of the artful turns of reasoning–ever made it into a speech that the Gipper delivered. Still, I had a certain franchise to stay in touch, kibitz, complain from the outside, as Tony and the crew settled into the White House. My complaints began to sharpen, along with the moanings of other loyalists, as the new administration seemed to be losing traction or faltering in the winter of 1981-82. My concerns–and my prescriptions for working our way out of the trough–I would set down at length in a cover piece for National Review called “A Lover’s Lament for the Reagan Administration” (May 28, 1982).

The administration’s predicament seemed to be captured in a line making the rounds at the time: that Reagan’s future, and the fate of his administration, would come to depend on where interest rates would be in the fall. But I raised the question at the outset of my piece: How could it possibly be that the standing and prospects of a conservative administration would hinge on anything as contingent, as wanting in moral significance, as the level of interest rates at any moment? Whether we had been concerned about the new aggressiveness of the Soviet Union, or racial entitlements, or abortion, or the suffocating level of regulations and taxes, there was a whole cluster of moral concerns brought together in the coalition that propelled Ronald Reagan into office. No one who cared, say, about the destruction of unborn children, would add an escape clause saying, “unless mortgage rates stayed at 18 percent.”

How, then, I asked, could we have come to a pass in which this sense of the larger things seems to have been filtered out of the public understanding? Someone had not been doing his job in cultivating, in the public, an awareness of the issues that truly mattered. Today, no Democrat intensely concerned with preserving “abortion rights” against the threat posed by the Bush administration is likely to be won over by the news that the economy is now generating jobs at a rate that has not been seen since the days of Reagan. For people with these concerns, the ups and downs of employment may matter, but they will not be decisive. Of course, not all of the public will absorb this sense of things, for many voters in the middle may indeed be voting for interests more prosaic and short term. But to make ourselves more alert to questions of principle was to convey, at least to the journalists and chattering classes, that we were not absorbing, for ourselves, their account of our politics. Nor would we accept as our own the standards they tried to sell to the public for judging our administration.

Sometime after the State of the Union Address, I was having lunch with Tony Dolan at the White House and he, with his enduring patience, invited me to pour my heart out. In making my case, I cited a passage that the president had delivered in the State of the Union speech: He had noted that we give subventions, or subsidies, to people who lost their jobs as a result of competition with international firms. But he pointed out that we didn’t give any such subsidies to people who lost their jobs as a result of competition with domestic firms. Out of equity, he suggested, if we did one, we should do the other. Yet it was evident that we could not do both. Therefore, he said, with a sense of equity, let us do neither. Let us simply repeal this lingering, vagrant effort to fine-tune the economy from Washington.

Now that, I pointed out, was vintage Reagan: It involved a question of principle; its rightness could be judged on its own terms; and that rightness would not be affected in any way by the question of where interest rates would be next fall. I remarked then: Find the guy who threw that line into the speech, and have him serve up about a dozen more. And by the way, who did write that line? Oh that, said Tony, “the President threw that in” while they had been working on the speech.

Well, there we had it. As we used to say: Let Reagan be Reagan. His own paths of curiosity, his ways of reflecting about a problem, lingered with questions of principle, and he framed them in ways that were universally accessible. Another notable example in that same vein occurred a few years later, when Lou Cannon started inserting, in his reports on Reagan, an item called “Reaganism of the Week.” To take a line from Mel Brooks, the suggestion was that Reagan rather typically spoke a version of genuine “frontier gibberish.” Cannon offered once as a case in point an interview in which the president was asked how, as an officer under the law, he could support the Contras in Nicaragua when they were seeking to overthrow the purportedly legitimate government of that country. The president responded that it was indeed true that the Contras were seeking to take power at the point of a gun, in resisting the oppressive regime of the Sandanistas. But the Sandanistas, he observed, held power at the point of a gun. And so, as he mulled aloud to the reporter, he did not quite see the moral difference between the Contras and what the reporter was pleased to call “the legitimate government of Nicaragua.”

Now the Gipper could not fill in the bibliography. He probably could not have explained that his reflections here had led him back to the difference between an international law that was “positivist” in character and an understanding of international law influenced more fully by the axioms of natural law. When the positivist asked the question, “Who formed the legitimate government of Nicaragua?,” the answer came back without any moral ingredients: The legitimate government was the government that had effective control of the territory. That was not necessarily a government that enjoyed the consent of the governed. It could be a Hitlerite regime, but if it were in firm control of the territory, it counted, in the positivist reckoning, as the legitimate government.

But to insist on a moral test–that a government had to meet certain moral qualifications before it could be recognized or approved as a decent and legitimate government–was to back into the principles of an older version of international law. It was the brand of international law that was understood more readily before the middle of the 19th century, when the doctrines of legal positivism came to secure a firmer hold on the legal profession and the teaching of law.

Even Reagan, with his surprisingly wide reach of reading, probably could not readily bring out, in his support, the writings of Grotius or Pufendorf. But again, the striking thing about him was that, on his own, with his own pondering about the moral questions in politics and law, he often moved along paths of reflection that had been trod before him by writers more accomplished and celebrated in political philosophy. In that same vein, Harry Jaffa has shown how Lincoln, quite uncannily and quite movingly, moved on his own along paths that had been marked out by the reflections of Aristotle and Aquinas.

It is curious that people, even now, find it a fascinating problem to describe the kind of intelligence Ronald Reagan so evidently deployed. When that subject comes up, I’ve usually pointed out that it took no trifling minds to master the rather intricate board game devised by Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner when they attempted to redesign the health industry in this country–a project that proposed to take in about 14 percent of the gross national product. For such superior minds, it was a matter mainly of concentrating; and it required no small wit to understand the sliding scales of co-payments and deductibles that, in the genius of the design, would deliver the American people, not only to a higher plane of health, but to a new plateau of justice. Ronald Reagan would have listened to the scheme for about 45 seconds–or possibly as long as a minute and a half–and shaken his head in disbelief. He would have recognized, at once, that the scheme made no contact with the world the rest of us inhabited. That is another measure of intelligence. He possessed it handsomely, as he possessed everything else.

All of this we have known and appreciated for a long while. And yet the surprise is what a jolt we are feeling again this week with the sense of what we will miss now that he is gone.

Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College, the founder of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, and the architect of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Acts.


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