The Legacy of Ronald Wilson Reagan
(February 6, 1911 -- )
40th President of the United States
(January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989)
Written by a person who was a teenager during the Reagan presidency:
President Reagan turned 90 on Tuesday, February 6, 2001, but in all likelihood he was probably barely aware of it. The cruelty of Alzheimer's has robbed Ronald Reagan of the capacity for clear memory. But that doesn't apply to the rest of us.
He seems, in some respects, a historical oddity now, his political and cultural presence obscured by the Clinton psychodrama and the Bush dynasty. But his successors do not begin to compare - either in achievement or legacy. Reagan is still, in my view, the architect of our modern world.
Reagan stood for two simple but indisputably big things -- the expansion of freedom at home and the extinction of tyranny abroad. He achieved both. When he came to office, top tax rates in the United States were 70%. Against the odds, Reagan slashed the top rate to 28% and ignited the economic boom that is still with us.
But unlike George W. Bush, and certainly unlike the hopelessly confused Michael Portillo in England, Reagan understood what tax cuts were about. Back in 1976, he made the case in one of his innumerable radio addresses --
"Our system freed the individual genius of man. We allocate resources not by government decision but by the millions of decisions customers make when they go into the market place. If something seems too high-priced, we buy something else. So resources are steered toward those things people want most at the price they are willing to pay."
Classic Reagan. Simple. Intelligible. True. Some people believe he was a moron, incapable of intellectual engagement. A brief perusal through his dozens of addresses will put the lie to that. He grappled directly and bravely with the main issues of his day. He was a believer in the media as a way to communicate ideas that could change lives. In this sense, he was one of the most intellectual presidents in history.
If he was right about taxation and the role of government, he was also right about the other great question of his day -- the Soviet Union.
I will never forget the moment I heard his "evil empire" speech. It was broadcast on Radio 4, with skeptical British commentary about this inflammatory new president who knew nothing about the complexities of late communism. But for all the criticism, what came through to my teenage brain was an actual truth. Yes, the Soviet Union was evil. Who now doubts that?
He alone saw that communism was destined to be put on the "ash-heap of history", as he told the House of Commons. And he helped put it there.
Think of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. In the 1980s, they were nuclear freeze supporters. And yet both now thoughtlessly enjoy the soft and easy fruits of a greater man's courage.
The critics harp on the enormous deficits of the Reagan era, but the truth is that federal revenues boomed on Reagan's watch. What created the deficits was an unprecedented increase in defense spending - the bargaining chip that eventually forced the Soviets to surrender.
You could easily argue that this was a price worth paying for an early end to an expensive conflict. Even the straggling defenders of perestroika now concede that Reagan's intransigence speeded the collapse of the Soviet empire. The deficits were therefore a fiscal bargain.
And on most of the current pressing issues, Reaganism still has plenty of credibility. The main cloud on the fiscal horizon - the long-term insolvency of the government-run pension system - stems from a program Reagan opposed.
The end of the federal welfare entitlement was also presaged by Reagan. In the early 1970s, when he was governor of California, he alone opposed the question of whether to federalize that entitlement. It took 30 years and enduring Bill Clinton to recognize finally the validity of Reagan's point.
Reagan's unlikeliest dream - nuclear missile defense - is also still with us. Lampooned as "star wars", it will soon regain the pre-eminence it deserves in America's military defense, as Donald Rumsfeld aggressively moves it forward.
The contrast with Clinton couldn't be clearer. Clinton was a group-hugger, obsessed with the press, fixated on spin, devoted to polls, and devoid of morals.
As President, Reagan was aloof, distant even from his own family, focused on a few important themes and delegating everything else.
He was devoted to his second wife with a romantic zeal, wore a coat and tie at all times in the Oval Office, a room he considered sacred. He was also pricelessly funny. As he was wheeled into the operating room after a bullet almost took his life, he looked at the solemn, green-suited doctors and said, "Please tell me you're Republicans."
A natural populist, Reagan spent hours handwriting letters to obscure pen pals he had befriended in the past, never dreaming he was too important to ignore such tasks of courtesy. He was a democrat to his fingertips who didn't need a "common touch" because he was so effortlessly a common man himself.
It takes time to recognize greatness and it sometimes appears in the oddest of forms. When he dies, this country will go into shock. For Americans know in their hearts that this unlikely man understood the deepest meaning of their country in a way nobody else has done for several generations.
The direct simplicity and wisdom of Ronald Reagan lives on in his many memorable quotes:
"Here's my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose."
"The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
"The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant: It's just that they know so much that isn't so."
"Of the four wars in my lifetime none came about because the U.S. was too strong."
"I have wondered at times about what the Ten Commandment's would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress."
"The taxpayer: That's someone who works for the federal government but doesn't have to take the civil service examination."
"Government is like a baby: An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."
"If we ever forget that we're one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under."
"The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program."
"I've laid down the law, though, to everyone from now on about anything that happens: no matter what time it is, wake me, even if it's in the middle of a Cabinet meeting."
"Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book."
"It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first."
"Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.
"No arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.
"Let us show that we stand for fiscal integrity and sound money and above all for an end to deficit spending, with ultimate retirement of the national debt. Let us also include a permanent limit on the percentage of the people's earnings government can take without their consent. Let our banner proclaim a genuine tax reform... Let us explore ways to ward off socialism, not by increasing government's coercive power, but by increasing participation by the people in the ownership of our industrial machine... And we must make it plain to international adventurers that our love of peace stops short of 'peace at any price.' We will maintain whatever level of strength is necessary to preserve our free way of life. ... I do not believe I have proposed anything that is contrary to what has been considered Republican principle. It is at the same time the very basis of conservatism. It is time to reassert that principle and raise it to full view. And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way." óRonald Reagan
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