The legacy of Ronald Reagan
June 11, 2004
Conqueror of communism, sworn enemy of statism, leader of unshakable conviction and contagious optimism, Ronald Reagan became one of history’s heroes long before his death. At a time when patriotism was mocked, he exposed the bankruptcy of modern liberalism and proved that true liberty is still a fighting faith. And like all great presidents, he created a yardstick against which future presidents will be measured.
President Reagan was not only congenitally optimistic; he could talk “through the camera” to the American people, making each viewer feel as if it were just the two of them. They were comfortable with him – and this made them comfortable with his ideas. He had no need for spin doctors to convey what he “really meant.” His message of lower taxes, smaller government and a strong U.S. military resonated deeply with the nation.
Indeed, no one since Franklin Roosevelt connected so well with ordinary Americans. In many ways, Reagan did for the 1980s what Roosevelt did for an America struggling with the Great Depression. He took an America suffering from “malaise” and double-digit inflation at home, as well as declining respect and foreign policy embarrassments abroad, and made its citizens believe again in their destiny as the “last best hope of mankind.”
Long before voters began pining for “authentic” candidates, President Reagan was the genuine article. What you saw was what you got. Those who say he was scripted – a former actor in the role of a lifetime – didn’t know the man.
Consider his famous description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Several close advisers warned against using what they considered inflammatory language, but in his view diplomatic euphemisms were allowing a morally and intellectually bankrupt regime to suppress the freedom of millions. History proved Reagan right. As Margaret Thatcher memorably put it, “He won the Cold War without firing a shot.”
Although Reagan believed in a strong America, he didn’t expect it to act as the world’s policeman. But he did believe in giving support to people fighting for freedom. “All they need is our support,” he said of Nicaragua in 1985. “All they need is proof that we care as much about the fight for freedom 700 miles from our shores as the Soviets care about the fight against freedom 5,000 miles from theirs.”
He also brought new perspectives to old problems. Take welfare. A full decade before Congress passed the most sweeping reform of government-sponsored charity, Reagan was laying the groundwork by pointing out that welfare – in FDR’s words, “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” – should be measured not in terms of how much welfare recipients get, but “by how many of its recipients become independent of welfare.”
I first saw Ronald Reagan close up in 1973 when he testified on welfare reform before the Senate Finance Committee, displaying his rare talent for expressing conservative ideas that Americans found so compelling. In November 1978, my friend Richard Allen, Reagan’s director of foreign policy research, asked me to arrange a meeting between the candidate and journalists in London. Bill Deedes, then-editor of the Daily Telegraph, complained to me beforehand about coming to a breakfast meeting – “a barbaric American custom” – with this man who used to be governor of California. He left telling me it was one of the most interesting, fruitful and positive meetings he had ever attended on either side of the Atlantic.
But perhaps the most memorable moment of my personal encounters with President Reagan occurred on Oct. 3, 1983, at The Heritage Foundation’s 10th anniversary dinner in Washington, D.C. My wife, Linda, stood next to the president on the dais. He was so moved by the color guard’s presentation of the colors and the Navy Band’s playing of the national anthem that he leaned over to Linda and whispered, “That was so moving, it makes me want to clap. Too bad no one else is.” She replied, “Mr. President, I’ll bet if you did, everyone else would join in.” He did, and within a second 1,400 people were on their feet applauding.
In Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, he gave America a transfusion of his own optimism and hope. He enkindled a sense of the possible, rescuing America from defeatism and much of the world from tyranny. He restored our confidence in the presidency itself, proving that Jefferson’s “splendid misery” could be simply splendid. And – not coincidentally – he helped create a safer, freer world. For that, his nation will be eternally grateful.
Dr. Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.