Showing us the way
June 15, 2004
It would be difficult to overestimate the contribution of Ronald Reagan to the United States, and especially to the American conservative moment. Under his leadership, American conservatism shed its skin of distrust and defensiveness toward the world. It overcame what was once a suspicion – even a dread – of the future. It became vigorous, bold, and assertive. And this engagement with the world has brought profound results.
Our current economic prosperity is rooted in the principles President Reagan championed. Historic tax reform was made possible because he changed the terms of the political debate. With his faith that government tax policy was the problem, not the solution, and a firm grasp of the fundamental principle of economics – free enterprise works – he released our creative energies and entrepreneurial spirits. He simplified the tax code and cut top marginal rates nearly in half. Interest rates and inflation fell. Millions of new jobs were created, and American families had more money. His policies encouraged and fostered free enterprise – especially in the high-technology industries, the fuel of our economic fire.
In foreign policy, President Reagan brought about the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. If he had done nothing else, his emphasis on a strong, assertive American military would secure his place in our nation’s history. But more than just strengthening our military, Reagan made us aware of our responsibilities as a superpower. Once again we acknowledged the necessity of acting energetically to defend our interests and our values in a dangerous world.
But despite his stunning contributions to American economic and military strength, President Reagan helped us to see that, in his words, “a nation’s greatness is not measured just by its gross national product or military power, but by the strength of its devotion to the principles and values that bind its people and define their character.” On this front – on this moral and cultural front – President Reagan did great work. In his evocation of our national memory and symbols of pride, in his summoning us to our national purpose, he performed the crucial task of political leadership. Moreover, he did this precisely when many people were wondering whether such leadership was still possible. If, as President Reagan said, “in recent years America’s values almost seemed in exile,” no public act was more significant than his welcoming them home.
The meaning of the Reagan Revolution extends beyond tax reform and beyond national defense. It includes a recovery of our national purpose, a strengthening of our social bonds, a reaffirmation of our common cultural beliefs. This is a task that goes beyond politics, let alone the politics of one administration. And that is why what President Reagan did after his presidency remains so definitive of his presidency.
In his own hand, President Reagan wrote to let us know that he was falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease. He spoke of other families suffering with the disease. He worried about his wife. Then he chose these words to comfort the nation:
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
At that time, I thought to myself, “There you go again, showing us the way.” And that is precisely what President Ronald Reagan was about: He showed us – conservatives, liberals, Americans – the way. The Reagan Revolution is not complete, and it remains our task to go forth toward that national greatness – to sustain and enhance and extend what Ronald Reagan did. That is how we can best honor him and his memory.
William J. Bennett was Secretary of Education under President Reagan. He is a Distinguished Fellow of Cultural Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, a Co-Director of Empower America and the Host of Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, a nationally syndicated radio show.