I spent Monday at the Ronald Reagan library, where I went to honor the late the President by reciting a prayer by his casket. To be sure, standing in line for four hours in California summer desert heat can be challenging. But allowing this unique man to pass without a personal tribute would be an unjust omission.
I will always remember Ronald Reagan as the man who saved us from the twilight of Jimmy Carter. Growing up in 1970’s America was bad enough insofar as it was the age of disco and the “Brady Bunch,” all now thoroughly discredited. But what made it so much worse was that we had a morbid president to boot. Although I was just a boy when he was president, I distinctly remember that every time Jimmy Carter got on television to speak, I wanted to pop a Prozac (which was itself a challenge seeing that the miracle anti-depressant had not yet even been invented).
Invariably, Carter would get on television to announce really bad news, from hyperinflation, to the takeover of our Embassy in Tehran, to his announcement a year later that our courageous soldiers had died in the Iranian desert in a botched attempt to free the hostages. Everything about Carter was gloom and, when listening to him, one did not know whom to pity more: this poor man who, as leader of the free world, was hopelessly out of his depth, or our country who had this sincere yet inept man at its helm.
Then along came Ronald Reagan. If Carter was America at midnight, then indeed, as his campaign pledge promised, Reagan was “morning in America.” Everything about this man was sunny. From the confidence he radiated when speaking of America’s future to his eternal smile, Ronald Reagan was the light that emanated from the darkness. Heck, this was a guy who was telling jokes even while he was sitting on an operating table about to undergo surgery for the removal of a bullet after he was shot!
Reagan’s buoyant spirits lifted the whole nation and made us proud to be Americans again. It was no wonder he endeared himself to his nation. After all, people love being around those who make them feel good about themselves. And whereas Jimmy Carter oozed uncertainty about America and its values, Reagan’s confidence in this country’s greatness made us all feel like we were born with a great destiny.
His critics, of course, said he was stupid. They would compare his seeming inability to master policy details – especially in press conferences, of which his presidency boasted few – with Jimmy Carter’s mastery of detail. More than a few disgruntled former White House staffers wrote memoirs accusing Reagan of being profoundly ignorant, and of watching movies like “The Sound of Music” even during national crises. But for all their criticism, still the country flourished. While Jimmy Carter possessed what can only be described as the anti-Midas touch – he would touch gold and it would turn to tin – Reagan sprinkled gold-dust on every corner of America and it glittered in his light.
It should be noted that his ideological heir, President George W. Bush, is today accused of the same thing. When I speak with my European friends, their main complaint about Bush is that he is “an ignorant peasant.” I will not here debate the merits of whether or not President Reagan was thick or whether or not our current president is dense. I would rather point out to the critics of these two courageous men that intelligence counts little in leadership.
Where did this idea ever come from that the smarter you are, the more capable you are of leading? Albert Einstein was the smartest man of the 20th century. Yet, he was a pacifist who didn’t foresee the rise of Hitler until it was too late. The same was true of another 20th-century genius, Sigmund Freud, who held similar pacifist views, even amid the rise of Nazism. Would anyone want these guys as president? I was a rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years and met some of the world’s smartest men and women, but they couldn’t lead if their life depended on it. Anyone want an absent-minded professor as prime minister?
Brainpower may be important when you want to impress people with your mastery of detail, as Bill Clinton did on numerous occasions. But conviction is important when you want to steer the ship of state on a forward direction without being sidetracked by polls.
Was it military brilliance or steadfast resolve that made George Washington a great general? I have read many biographies of Washington and cannot recall any of his contemporaries referring to him as a genius, an epithet which was instead reserved for his adviser, Alexander Hamilton. Rather, Washington distinguished himself by his perseverance: staying the course and miraculously leading a ragtag army to victory against the superpower of his time.
Abraham Lincoln was accused of being Satan by the people of the South and of being a buffoon by the people of the North. The sophisticates Washington and New York loathed what they saw as a Kentucky Philistine who told embarrassing, homespun frontier tales. To be sure, they were wrong, and Lincoln is today regarded as a genius. But that’s not what made him a great leader. Rather, it was his rock-solid conviction that the Union was right and slavery was wrong that earned him his deserved reputation as our greatest president.
Harry Truman, the former haberdasher, was likewise seen as a country bumpkin by the policy sophisticates who had served his master, Franklin Roosevelt. But he, too, distinguished himself by his uncanny ability to see the evil of the Soviet Union and set in motion the mechanisms that would protect America during the Cold War.
By contrast, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton would probably rank as two of the most intelligent presidents of all time. But Nixon used his genius to find enemies where they did not exist, and Clinton squandered his promise because, while he had smarts, he lacked vision and missed the repeated warnings the terrorists gave him in their run-up to Sept. 11.
The lesson of Ronald Regan’s wildly successful presidency is that leadership is still about three simple ingredients. The first is moral courage – a deep-seated conviction about the difference between right and wrong, and the ability to state truths, like calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” even if it makes you seem simple and makes you unpopular.
The second is human decency. Even Reagan’s ideological enemies had a soft spot for him because they felt him to be an essentially warm and caring man. Decency inspires a following.
And the third is an unwavering belief in God, which in turn is the source of all human optimism. If there is a God, then the world was created according to a plan and everything will eventually work out for the best. If there is no God, then life is capricious, history a series of accidents, and there is no guarantee that the forces of darkness will not ultimately triumph over the forces of light.
Possessed of these three ingredients in spades, Ronald Reagan’s presidency restored the confidence of a shaken nation. His presidency indeed was “morning in America.” Now, we bear the grief of his death, his absence creating mourning in America.