Politics & Policy

What Set Reagan Apart

The tension in Egypt has swiftly differentiated Obama from the Gipper.

We are witnessing a pivotal moment in Pres. Barack Obama’s first term with the deteriorating situation in Egypt. At the same time, we’re seeing an attempt by some — mostly his supporters in the media — to align Obama with President Reagan, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this Sunday. But as we watch the protests in Cairo and the administration’s reaction so far, it should be clear that the comparison is not only weak, but absurd.

#ad#After all, this administration said that the president was “not picking between those on the street and those in the government” in Egypt. I don’t pretend to know which side Reagan would have picked. Indeed, to be fair to the Obama administration, there are no good options when your choice is between a pro-American strongman and an uprising driven in part by the Muslim Brotherhood. But I’m confident that Reagan would have at least said that those who fight for freedom will always have a friend in the United States.

As president, Obama has to weigh the realpolitik consequences of undermining Hosni Mubarak’s regime. But he also has a duty to act as the world’s most powerful spokesman for freedom and democracy. Balancing these incongruous responsibilities is part of the job. Some presidents do it well; some do not.

Ronald Reagan did it very well. What’s more, he knew how to capitalize on opportunities to remind the world where America stands on freedom and democracy without wavering or apprehension. Often it was without regard for political convenience or political correctness.

And Reagan set the tone right at the beginning of his term, famously calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Critics derided the phrase as antagonistic. But Reagan knew what his critics did not: Liberals and the media weren’t Reagan’s target audience. “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us,” Natan Sharansky wrote of the speech when news of it reached him and his fellow dissidents locked in Soviet gulags.

Did Reagan’s calling our No. 1 foreign-policy opponent “evil” make the State Department’s job harder? Probably. But Reagan knew that Sharansky and others heard him, and that his words brought with them something Foggy Bottom couldn’t: hope.

The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev changed matters slightly. In a regime in which difference was abhorred, Gorbachev was different — and Reagan took notice. In subtle ways Reagan was able to work with — and manipulate — Gorbachev. But here’s the key: Reagan changed his approach without ceasing to act as the world’s foremost proponent of freedom.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in 1987, when he called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” This was at the time the two leaders were about to commence negotiations on nuclear disarmament. It’s well known that Reagan’s advisers repeatedly removed the blunt call for freedom from the drafts. (Undoubtedly, President Obama’s advisers have suggested he not take a firm stand in addressing the turmoil in Egypt.) Reagan said it anyway, because he knew it had to be said. By the way, he got his disarmament treaty, too.

A good measure of a president’s leadership is whether he seizes opportunities to spotlight America’s defense of freedom and democracy, or whether he equivocates. What set Reagan apart, agitated his critics, and confounds his imitators is that he truly treasured those values and sought to spread them wherever and whenever he had a chance.

As Obama undoubtedly knows by now, the presidency is the most powerful position in the world because when you speak, the world listens. I don’t see many similarities between our current president and our 40th, but if the former is at all interested in establishing a connection, he should start by reminding the world’s oppressed people that when they stand for freedom, America stands with them. “Not picking sides” won’t earn you a place beside Ronald Reagan.

As we celebrate his centennial and observe politicians of all stripes trying to align themselves with Reagan’s legacy, we should remember what made Ronald Reagan such a compelling leader. When given a moment on the international stage, Reagan unfailingly proclaimed America as the beacon of hope for those who yearn for freedom.

— Fred Thompson, who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, is an actor, lawyer, and political commentator. 

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