I am a mainstream Democrat who worked at the epicenter of the loyal opposition for much of the Reagan presidency. I now believe that Ronald Reagan will go down in history as a great president of Mount Rushmore-quality historic achievement.
When historians reflect back one thousand years from now, the era from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan will be seen as a period of epic triumph in human history and these two giants will be seen as the Indispensable Americans, the twin pillars of the triumph of democracy over fascism, Communism, and totalitarianism of every kind.
It is true that, as a Democrat, I opposed many of Reagan’s policies, and would do so again today. It is also true that there were other giants on the world stage also worthy of humanity’s high honors for their work in those days, especially Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. And it is true that every American president from Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush made some singular contribution in the great continuum of American leaders.
But Reagan had a unique combination of extraordinary gifts and visions. He was the right man at the right place at the right time, and he was large enough to see the moment, seize it, and shape it. Whatever disagreements Democrats may have had pale in comparison to his achievements for human freedom and world peace.
Who in 1980 could have imagined what would happen by the end of that decade? A generation of children who spent grade school taught to hide under their desks to prepare for nuclear war grew up to see a world in which Soviet Empire was destroyed, global Communism was nearly eliminated, and nuclear weapons were destroyed through arms reduction with a magnitude beyond the imaginations of the most liberal liberal and the most conservative conservative.
Who would have imagined in 1980 that in a few short years, newly free youth would dance on the rubble of the torn-down Berlin Wall? Or that that those who went to jail in Eastern Europe as prisoners for freedom would emerge as the heads of state of new democracies? Or that throughout Latin America, Communist-inspired dictatorships and right-wing criminal regimes would soon be gone? Or that the entire world would have the opportunity to spend the next hundred generations spending uncountable trillions of dollars on programs of hope, invention, and opportunity rather than on nuclear fear, paranoia, and death?
Reagan did not accomplish all of these things, but he played a preeminent role in most of them, and more than any single individual he set the stage for a world in which such things were possible.
When the grand hour came, when he found a negotiating partner in Gorbachev who was bold and large enough to see and share the vision–the coming death of Communism, the insane bankruptcy of the arms race, and the vulgarity and lunacy of accepting a world of mutually assured destruction–Ronald Reagan took a hand that was powerful and strong and extended it with reason, hope, and faith.
Reagan was the great conservative of his age, but he was much more than conservative; and he was the great politician of his age, but he was
influenced by factors that far transcended politics and made these large achievements possible when the great decisions were made.
Reagan’s faith in Christ was quiet, but deep and true. He believed in the Biblical vision of Armageddon, feared it could be triggered by thermonuclear war, felt he had a sacred duty to prevent it, and concluded his life was saved from assassination to prevent the world from being destroyed by nuclear holocaust.
Reagan’s worldview was sweetened by the romantic love at the center of his life with Nancy, who will someday receive the historical credit she is due for inspiring a president to reach for greatness.
As a spokesman for General Electric, Reagan developed a fascination with the future, the spirit of a salesman, and an understanding of the
trials and dreams of the average Americans he met touring the country. And as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he learned and enjoyed great skills as a negotiator, a talent for understanding a negotiating partner’s interests, and a good feel for the art of the deal.
Reading the extraordinary collection of Reagan’s letters published by the Andersons and Kiron Skinner, we see a depth and sense of history that was far more profound than generally known at the time–one that served the nation well during the great events.
In the world of 1980, Reagan was indeed the Indispensable American. Few liberals had the power and strength to be credible to the most
deadly enemies of freedom–to drive them to weakness. Few conservatives had the vision to see just how weak the enemy really was.
Yes, there were many things Reagan did that I believe were wrong, even terrible. Yet presidents are people, not gods. Even some of the greatest Founding Fathers owned slaves, but that has not prevented their descendents from celebrating their greatness.
A thousand years from now, I submit, teachers will tell children of the days when a president in a wheelchair led a Great Generation that
saved the world from becoming a factory of gas chambers. And they will tell children of the days when a congenial man with a wink and a smile took a set of bedrock beliefs–an inner strength that came from conviction–and combined it with a flexibility and skill essential during those days of decisions when the world was reshaped forever.
Just months after Reagan left us, we find ourselves in a divided America. I propose that we would be a better country if Americans of all persuasions sought to cross our great divide, and recognize that
greatness can be named Roosevelt or Reagan, each with legacies worthy of being placed side by side.
–Brent Budowsky was legislative assistant to former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen and legislative director to Representative Bill Alexander, then chief deputy Democratic whip.