June 15, 2004
Today, 16 years after his departure from public life, Ronald Reagan’s legacy remains controversial. At his death, his detractors on the Left have not been bashful about bringing up those aspects of Reagan’s presidency that were embarrassing to him (notably the Iran-Contra scandal) and distressing to them (the moral clarity of his steadfast opposition to socialism and communism.) But even those who never supported Reagan with their votes should at least grudgingly concede that he did America a great service.
Coming into office when this country’s morale was at a depressing low point, his sunny optimism, his belief in freedom and opportunity, his courageous leadership, and his simple but strong faith in his God and his country revived America’s flagging spirits, and gave new purpose to its role in the world. His policies set off an eight-year boom that took America’s economic strength to new heights, and brought increased prosperity to rich and poor alike.
Thanks to his courageous leadership, coupled with that of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, John Paul II, and hundreds of Polish shipyard workers, the world’s leading Marxist-Leninist regime collapsed onto the ash heap of history without a shot fired. Last Friday the last leader of that “evil empire” came to the National Cathedral to pay his respects to the Great Liberator.
Ronald Reagan believed in freedom for every person everywhere - the freedom to work at a calling of one’s choice, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors, the freedom to own and control one’s property, and the freedom to participate in a free market. He believed in restraining the heavy hand of government in the lives of our people, because as he often said, “as government grows, liberty shrinks.”
In a memorable address to the students of Moscow State University in 1988, he said “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this earth has been put here for a reason and has something to offer… Because [Americans] know that liberty, just as life itself, is not earned, but a gift from God, they seek to share that gift with the world.”
Reagan understood, like Adams, Jefferson and Madison before him, that the preservation of a free republic requires a widespread distribution of private property ownership. He understood, too, the menace of giantism and the importance of preserving the wellsprings of voluntary action at the human scale of small business, fraternal lodge, congregation, block club, and town council, a scale “that nurtures standards of right behavior, a prevailing ethic of what is right and what is wrong.”
In a 1978 radio commentary he observed that “the issue is not one of Left and Right. The real issue is how to reverse the flow of power to ever more remote institutions, and to restore that power to the individual, the family, and the local community.” Alas, for reasons that are perhaps understandable, his administration did little to bring about any such decentralization of power.
Probably more than any other president of his century, Ronald Reagan loved America and the American Dream. When he bid farewell to the presidency, he spoke movingly of his favorite metaphor from Puritan leader John Winthrop, America as a shining “city on the hill”: “How stands the city on this winter night?…After 200 years, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. She’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home.”
Ronald Reagan has at last passed from the dark shadow of his final years into the sunlight, to that little corner of heaven reserved for those who spoke and acted to preserve liberty and advance the rights of mankind. To paraphrase what Reagan himself once said about Thomas Jefferson: his fellow Americans, and men and women everywhere in the world who yearn for the freedom to follow their own destinies, would do well to pluck a flower from Ronald Reagan’s life, and wear it in their souls forever.
John McClaughry, President of the Ethan Allen Institute, was a Reagan speechwriter and a Senior Policy Advisor in the first Reagan White House (www.ethanallen.org).