Ronald Reagan was the first American president for whom I voted. In November 1980, I was living in Massillon, Ohio – a rust-belt town near Canton – and, after suffering four years of political malaise under the liberal Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter, I was eager, like many other Americans, to vote for this larger-than-life figure who seemed to embody all the chief political views I held dearly as a conservative Christian.
I kept for my files (and have at this moment in front of me) the front-page of the Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1980, Massillon Evening Independent, which carried a historic headline: "Reagan Sweeps Nation." It was indeed a sweep, and I thrill to read it today as I first did nearly a quarter century ago.
Reagan captured the attention and imagination of an entire generation. A former actor, Reagan employed television more effectively than any politician I've ever known, including Bill Clinton, who also knew how to use television adroitly. There was at once an electric charge and a calming effect when Reagan spoke those evenings from the Oval Office. When I heard his resonant, earnest voice, "My fellow Americans, I want to talk to you," I was arrested and captivated by his every word. He had the capacity for directness in communication (very unlike Clinton), a way of reaching as it were right through the camera to very hearts of his listeners.
We sometimes hear politicians speak of the power of ideas in the political sphere. Ronald Regan had only three main political ideas, but they were the right ideas, and history has proven them to be the right ideas.
Great ideas of a great man
First, Reagan believed communism was evil and should be crushed – not contained, as a number of his failed predecessors believed. Reagan not only believed it was evil and should be crushed, he said so. The liberals howled that such language was provocative and incendiary – with hints that it was the parlance of a slightly dimwitted western cowboy – but it was Reagan who had the last laugh.
His plan for vanquishing communism was as much genius as it was simple: force the already economically strapped Soviet Union to keep apace with massive U.S. military spending, including new technologies (like the Strategic Defense Initiative). The decrepit Marxist regime wasn't up to the challenge, and soon after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down (he earlier exhorted it should come down), and communist regimes began to topple to democratic forces like Florida beach bungalows in a fierce September hurricane.
Marxism's perverse communalism, the subordination of the individual to the community of the state, was antithetical to Reagan's unflagging support for individual liberty, and he saw no possible compromise between the two. In the end, it was Reagan and his ideas – not Marx and his – that won the day, and in the present world, communism huddles decrepitly only in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, China and the humanities departments of elite American universities. For this epochal defeat, we have Reagan partly to thank.
Second, Reagan believed the U.S. government was much too large and it must be shrunk in favor of free markets. In this sense, he carried on the best of the classically liberal tradition. The old-line (European-style) conservatives tended toward protectionism and mercantilism (state socialism), but Reagan was confident – as he famously stated in his first inaugural address – government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.
Reagan was not as successful as some of us would have liked in shrinking the federal government. He did once raise taxes (and probably regretted it), but he was at heart a tax-cutting free-marketer, and his and Paul Volker's willingness to purge most inflation from the economy has put it on an essentially solid footing for the last 20 years.
Moreover, his free-market philosophy laid the groundwork for the reconfiguration of the Republican Party – no longer an Eastern establishment a la the Rockefellers, but revolutionary government-cutters in the mold of Newt Gingrich. Further, he even contributed to the reshaping of the Democratic Party. When the "centrist" Bill Clinton signed legislation ending welfare for all practical purposes and proclaimed, "The era of big government is over," he was betraying the irresistible influence of Ronald Reagan.
Third, and finally, Reagan believed America was a good – even a great – country, and that its greatest days were ahead. This note of unbounded optimism seemed to grace almost every speech of his I heard, and it was a welcome relief after 15 years of a paralyzing national self-loathing and hand-wringing over Vietnam and Watergate. Reagan, in the core of his being, believed our nation was founded on great ideals – individual liberty under God, limited government, equality under the law, opportunity for all, and the virtue of the American populace. Reagan did not apologize for America – he told us ours was a great nation if only we would recover our ideals. We believed him and, as a result, a wave of optimism spread over the country that I have not seen since.
When we assess figures at the very point of history in which they are prominent, we sometimes exaggerate their greatness and, over time, we temper our enthusiasm for them. Not so with my estimate of Reagan. If anything, I hold him in higher esteem today than I did in early 1989 when he left office.
All of the main convictions for which he stood – and on which he acted – were true, and I will forever be grateful to him that he helped make the world safer for my children and grandchildren.