Politics & Policy

When Character Counted

The importance of Ronald Reagan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On February 4 and 5, 1999 the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Center for Public Affairs sponsored a two-day symposium at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. The theme of the event was “Eight Years that Changed the World: The Reagan Legacy in the New Century.” Mark Burson, executive director of the Reagan Foundation, opened the meeting. Speakers and panelists were: Brian Mulroney, Martin Anderson, Sander Vanocur, Edwin Meese, Murray Weidenbaum, Dinesh D’Souza, Stephen Entin, James Miller, Clark Judge, Larry Arnn, Richard McKenzie, William Niskanen, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Maureen Reagan, Ken Adelman, Richard Allen, Howard Baker–and Mrs. Reagan.

The keynote speaker was William F. Buckley Jr. His remarks were published in the March 8, 1999, issue of National Review and are reprinted here.

An excerpt from Mark Burson’s introduction: “With the establishment of National Review, Buckley gave to conservatism what it previously lacked–intellectual firepower, sophisticated and literate reasoning, and, yes, even a sense of humor. These are the weapons with which the long, twilight struggle with liberalism has been waged, and along the way attracted more than a few converts to the root message. And we know that one of the proud Americans who heard the message was a popular movie actor, television personality, and former Democrat who also did a few things in politics.”

Mrs. Reagan, Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Burson, ladies and gentlemen:

I recall that Henry Mencken described an introduction to him on a celebratory occasion as having evoked “a full moon, the setting sun, and the aurora borealis.” In this perspective, if all of that which Mark Burson has said of me really belongs to me, how am I expected even to intimate the achievements of Ronald Reagan? Well, I can do that, really, in one sentence.

He succeeded in getting Nancy Reagan to marry him.

The country is familiar with the legend of Nancy, familiar with her accomplishments as companion, aide, monitor, wife, and lover. There was never anyone who more devotedly served a husband. She has renewed for us all the meaning of the pledge to stand by in sickness and in health.

This being a convocation of friends and admirers, in celebration of his birthday, I propose as keynoter to dwell a while on a longtime friendship. It began in the spring of 1960. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whom I hadn’t met, were seated at one end of the restaurant, I and my sister-in-law at the other end. We were out of sight of one another. Both parties were headed, after dinner, across the street to an auditorium in a public high school. There I would be introduced, as the evening’s speaker addressing an assembly of doctors and their wives, by Ronald Reagan, a well-known actor and currently the host of a television series sponsored by General Electric; moreover, a public figure who had taken an interest in conservatives and conservative writings.

We bumped into each other going out the door. Ronald Reagan introduced himself and Nancy, and said he had just finished reading my book, Up From Liberalism. He quoted a crack from it, done at the expense of Mrs. Roosevelt, which he relished. I requited his courtesy by relishing him and Nancy for life.

He distinguished himself that night–and dismayed Mrs. Reagan–by what he proceeded to do after discovering that the microphone hadn’t been turned on. He had tried, raising his voice, to tell a few stories. But the audience was progressively impatient. Waiting in vain for the superintendent to unlock the door to the tight little office at the other end of the hall in which the control box lay, he sized up the problem and, having surveyed all possible avenues of approach, climbed out of the window at stage level and, one story above the busy traffic below, cat-walked, Cary Grant-style, twenty or thirty yards to the remote office window of the control room. This he penetrated by breaking the glass window with a thrust of his elbow, climbing in, turning on the light, flipping on the microphone, unlocking the office door, and emerging with that competent, relaxed smile of his, which we came to know after Grenada, Libya, Reykjavik, and Moscow; proceeding with the introduction of the speaker. And all that was thirty years before bringing peace to our time!

In later years I thought his movements that night a nifty allegory of his approach to foreign policy, the calm appraisal of a situation, the willingness to take risks, and then the decisive moment: leading to lights and sound–and music, the music of the spheres.

We stayed friends.

Twenty years later he was running for President of the United States. Early that winter the Soviet military had charged into Afghanistan, beginning a long, costly, brutal exercise. A week or two after he was nominated in Detroit, I wrote him. I told him I thought he would be elected. And told him then that, on the assumption that on reaching the White House he might wish to tender me an office, I wished him to know that I aspired to no government job of any kind.

He wrote back that he was disappointed. “I had in mind,” he said, “to appoint you ambassador to Afghanistan.” Over the next eight years, in all my communications with him, I would report fleetingly on my secret mission in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan where, in our fiction, I lived and worked. In his letters to me he would always address me as Mr. Ambassador. The show must go on, where Ronald Reagan was involved.

Soon after his election I was asked by the Philadelphia Society to speak on the theme, “Is President Reagan doing all that can be done?” It was a coincidence that my wife Pat and I had spent the weekend before the speech as guests of the President and Mrs. Reagan in Barbados. I recalled with delight an exchange I had with my host on the presidential helicopter. We were flying to our villa the first evening, before the two days on Easter weekend reserved for bacchanalian sunning and swimming on the beach in front of Claudette Colbert’s house. I leaned over and told him I had heard the rumor that the Secret Service was going to deny him permission to swim on that beach on the grounds that it was insufficiently secure. I asked him whether that were so, that he wouldn’t be allowed in the water.

Helicopters, even Marine One helicopters, are pretty noisy, but I was able to make out what he said. It was, “Well, Bill, Nancy here tells me I’m the most powerful man in the Free World. If she’s right, then I will swim tomorrow with you.”

Which indeed he did.

I recall also that during one of those swims I said to him, “Mr. President, would you like to earn the National Review Medal of Freedom?” He confessed to being curious as to how he would qualify to do this. I explained, “I will proceed to almost drown, and you will rescue me.” We went through the motions, and that evening I conferred that medal on him, in pectore.

I remember telling the Philadelphia Society that the most powerful man in the Free World is not powerful enough to do everything that needs to be done. Retrospectively, I have speculated on what I continue to believe was the conclusive factor in the matter of American security against any threat of Soviet aggression. It was the character of the occupant of the White House; the character of Ronald Reagan. The reason this is so, I have argued, is that the Soviet Union, for all that from time to time it miscalculated tactically, never miscalculated in respect of matters apocalyptic in dimension. And the policymakers of the Soviet Union knew that the ambiguists with whom they so dearly loved to deal were not in power during those critical years. So that if ever the Soviet leaders were tempted to such suicidal foolishness as to launch a strike against us, suicidal is exactly what it would prove to have been. The primary obstacle to the ultimate act of Soviet imperialism was the resolute U.S. determination to value what we have, over against what they, under Soviet dominion, did not have; value it sufficiently to defend it with all our resources.


Ronald Reagan, in my judgment, animated his foreign policy by his occasional diplomatic indiscretions: because of course it was a diplomatic indiscretion to label the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” But then, quite correctly, he would switch gears when wearing diplomatic top hat and tails. He did not on those occasions talk the language of John Wayne–or of Thomas Aquinas. But how reassuring it was for us, you remember, every now and then (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”), to vibrate to the music of the very heartstrings of the leader of the Free World who, to qualify convincingly as such, had after all to feel a total commitment to the free world. When in formal circumstances the President ventured out to exercise conviviality with the leaders of the Soviet Union, the scene was by its nature wonderful, piquant: What would he say that was agreeable, congenial, to the head of the evil empire? The summit conferences brought to mind the Russian who, on discovering that his pet parrot was missing, rushed out to the KGB office to report that his parrot’s political opinions were entirely unrelated to his own.

The ensuing chapter in the life of Russia presents its own problems. They are internal problems, with a surly outer face. You can hear the words framed on the mouth of the few remaining statues of Lenin. His lips are saying, So much for your capitalism! Russia poses no strategic threat to the Free World, to which Russia, de jure, belongs. But the contemporary experience of Russia is a devastating rebuke to facile, universalist ideas about what it is that needs to be done to nurture advances towards prosperity.

One key, of course, an indispensable key, is human freedom. When West Germany was liberated from fascist tyranny, and Japan from imperialist militarism, well-wishers of freedom cheered the results as life began its dramatic turn toward self-rule and a market economy. But in Russia the old brew didn’t mix, did it? It isn’t hard to compile a list of the missing elements. We know now about the profound corruption, and know how corruption conjoined with industrial satrapies can defy the benevolent ministrations of a free market. The causes of the wealth of nations heralded by Adam Smith cannot make their way in the absence of a reasoned mobility of a nation’s resources and a receptive theater for the entrepreneurial energies of its people.

There will be many books written about what happened in Russia in the decade beginning with liberation. The inquests will be various and prolonged, and they will all be sad; but they will make vivid lessons we need to absorb, as we project the economic future of other nations to be sure, but also of our own. The overarching lesson is that the elements of a good society oriented to the improvement of life aren’t all disembodied, inanimate; weight scales at a free-market counter. There is the live component.

And it is not just formal self-rule. Democracy is a mantra, but it isn’t an amulet. We can chant the benefits of democratic arrangements and cheer democratic practices; but these practices do not always lead to enlightened policies. One third of the Duma in Moscow are Communists. The freedom the Russians had, for the first time, to vote, very nearly returned a Communist president in the election of two years ago. The popularity of the democratically elected president of Russia today is given as 1 percent. (He should try poking an intern.) A substantial number of Russians would exchange life as it is today for life as it was yesterday. Thirty million Russians have not been paid for weeks of work, in some cases for months of work. What is a Russian gravedigger supposed to do, if he is not paid? Dig his own grave?

At the other end of the world we have the dismaying spectacle of Japan, recently referred to as the Land of the Setting Sun. “It is quite amazing,” Larry Kudlow recently opined: “They haven’t managed to do anything right.” Eight consecutive years of mismanagement by the second wealthiest country in the world. A democratic society whose people are demoralized, seemingly lost.


The lesson for our students of political economy is that we cannot fully depend on autopilots to do what is necessary. The Framers of our own republic said it again and again, that in the absence of virtue, no government could vouchsafe to a people a life of liberty and order. There are technical questions to solve and others that aren’t at all technical. What Japan needs to do its governors are not doing, in part because of ignorance, in part because pride and stubbornness and fear prompt them to preserve decadent enterprises. The Russians despair of reform, and the social festers continue, awaiting what almost inevitably and sadly we think of as another revolution, one that might make dominant a class of leaders willing to adjourn their own fleeting interests today, for prospective gains tomorrow that will endure.

The problem is theirs; our concern is limited to geostrategic questions. At our blessedly immediate geographical remove from Tokyo and Moscow, we have the finite benefit of a little insularity. But the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific are exactly that, finite comforts, only as reassuring as the distance between where mid-range missiles land and where strategic-missiles land, a distance that time is battering away at, progressively diminishing the security we feel in our little snuggery here. To utter the words From sea to shining sea used to evoke an almost infinite distance. It is now a mere stretch of space, traveled by missiles in about 18 minutes.

The Reagan years accustomed us to a mood about life and about government. There were always the interruptions, the potholes of life. But he had strategic visions. He told us that most of our civic problems were problems brought on or exacerbated by government, not problems that could be solved by government. That of course is enduringly true. Only government can cause inflation, preserve monopoly, and punish enterprise. On the other hand, it is only a government leader who can affect a national mood or summon up a historical period. One refers not to the period of Shakespeare but to the period of Elizabeth. Reagan’s period was brief, but it put a stamp on the national mood. He did this in part because he was scornful of the claims of omnipotent government, in part because by nature and by the words he spoke, he felt, and expressed, the buoyancy of the American Republic.

We have now the paradoxical situation, a leader whom 75 percent of the American people don’t wish to disturb, and whom 75 percent of the American people do not trust. It is comforting to tell ourselves that what this means is that we live in an age in which the long arm of government is so discredited, it can’t really do us much damage. If Mr. Clinton were indeed powerless, then he would be a threat only to maidens passing by. But leaving aside the power he wields as commander in chief, he has the power, and has exercised it, to cultivate a cynicism whose final effects we cannot appraise, nor even imagine. If what he has done is trivial, then much of what we think of as the infrastructure of civil society is also trivial–our commitments to truth, to the processes of justice, to the sanctity of oaths. It is possible that in future years, if there will be a return to wholesomeness of habits of thought and deed, the cloud that will hang over the last year of the 20th century won’t be the memory of a year spent on impeachment, but the memory of a year in which no action was taken after impeachment.

It is fine that the Ronald Reagan Library, Museum, and Center for Public Affairs, which serves as our host, will collect his papers and ambient literature, permitting generations of students and scholars to explore and linger over those happy years which augured the end of the Soviet threat, the revitalization of our economy, and a great draft of pride in our country. To the library I’ll convey in years ahead my own collection of letters from Ronald Reagan. The very last one written from the White House the day the Soviet Union announced that it would withdraw from Afghanistan was addressed,

“Dear Mr. Ambassador:

“Congratulations! The Soviets are moving out of Afghanistan. I knew you could do it if I only left you there long enough, and you did it without leaving Kabul for a minute.”

He closed by saying, “Nancy sends her love to you and Pat.” That was eleven years ago, and we cherish it today, and through her, convey our own love and gratitude to the President, on his 88th birthday.


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