Eleven years ago, June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan left this world for the next. In the days that followed, America witnessed sights unseen since the death of John F. Kennedy — people keeping all-night vigils to touch his casket and say goodbye, lining highways by the thousands to express their gratitude, affection, and love. Those born after Reagan’s presidency might wonder: What was it about this man that evoked then — and still does today — such deep, heartfelt admiration?
History tells the answer. From 1981 through 1989, Ronald Reagan led a great American comeback. He not only achieved what his critics said would be impossible; he made it seem easy. His leadership transformed a sputtering U.S. economy into a rocket of growth that led to a generation of prosperity. He restored a neglected U.S. military and its alliances, engineering the eventual defeat of the Soviet empire, without starting a war and without firing a shot. Through it all, he revived America’s spirit, restored our hopes, and strengthened our faith.
Despite his astonishing success, some dismiss Reagan as no longer relevant to America and its 21st-century challenges. We should beg to differ. While issues and conditions change, people’s motivations and goals do not. They still revolve around home, family, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Moreover, Reagan grasped more than just what was timeless — he had a great capability for adapting to changing realities. He understood growth. He had a sharp eye for danger and recognized the leader’s duty to prepare and protect. And, his profound respect for the dignity, rights, and responsibilities of the individual, rooted in constitutional principles and 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian history and tradition, would equip a leader well to deal wisely with the contentious issues that preoccupy our country today.
Of Reagan’s many strengths, four in particular enabled him to connect with the American people in almost magical and unassailable ways. These gifts of leadership would be as welcomed and valuable in 2015 as 35 years ago. Perhaps even more so.
First, Reagan united America. He never sought to divide. He always spoke to us as “we” – citizens connected by the same love for America, the same values of family, faith, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. He opened his 1980 campaign at Liberty State Park in Hudson County, New Jersey — the first Republican to visit that blue-collar county in twelve years. Standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, he embraced the entire nation. “We share the same dreams,” he said, and added, “I’ve come here because I believe millions of Democrats are just as unhappy with the way things are as the rest of us are.”
Second, Reagan inspired America. On that day he kicked off his campaign, and throughout his presidency, he challenged us to lift our sights. He assured us that every American is created with the rights to life and liberty. The American Dream is the story of aspirations coming alive in millions of our minds and hearts in unique and wonderful ways. When Reagan stated, “We are Americans!” it was his voice of optimism declaring that in this land we have greater potential than anywhere else to be creative and heroic, and to excel in imagining and building a better future. That is why he was so determined to knock down barriers that prevented individuals from reaching their dreams, and America from achieving greatness.
When Reagan stated, ‘We are Americans!’ it was his voice of optimism declaring that in this land we have greater potential than anywhere else to be creative, heroic, and to excel in imagining and building a better future.
Third, Reagan emboldened America. He set forth a daring vision and policies that told the world America is back and, once again, we will be doing great things. His goal was not just to heal our economy, but to make America the growth, jobs, and investment leader of the world. Accordingly, he cut taxes deeply and equally for everyone, eventually dropping the top rate all the way from 70 percent to 28 percent, while providing enterprises strong incentives to compete and restoring a dollar as good as gold. He fought hard against ever expanding, encroaching bureaucracy, reduced non-defense spending, and eliminated subsidies and price controls, all of which provoked howls of protest.
Reagan’s critics never stopped insisting he would fail disastrously. Yet, not once did he break stride or lose his trademark humor: “Have you noticed, they don’t call it Reaganomics anymore” became his favorite quip as he watched wave after wave of investment, innovation, and productivity gains build the tsunami of record growth and new jobs. A strong dollar slew double-digit inflation and restored confidence. Lower tax rates encouraged women to enter the workforce in large numbers, many of them starting up new businesses, while minority employment and enterprises also grew. The rising tide of growth gave birth to new industries, propelling America’s technology boom in the 1990s. In short, the American people unleashed the most powerful postwar recovery in history, reducing poverty, raising incomes, and creating a prosperity that benefited every income group, rejuvenated our communities, and lifted up the entire global economy.
Finally, Reagan protected America. He not only called our enemies what they were — evil — he rallied the free world and worked secretly with Pope John Paul II to roll back the Soviets. His policy was crystal clear: “We win, they lose.” From day one, he pursued peace through strength by rearming America, conventionally and strategically, from top to bottom.
When his work was done, he sought no praise, and gave all credit to God and to the American people, whom he loved more than anything else on earth, except Nancy. Fittingly, Mother Theresa noted, “In this man, greatness and simplicity are one.”
Ronald Reagan not only remains relevant today, his star will still be shining brightly 100 years from today. He was courageous and brave. He championed timeless principles. He united, inspired, emboldened, and protected his countrymen. And, during his eight years in office, he moved history. He left America stronger, freer, and better.