“Very soon, all too soon, your government will need not just extraordinary men—but men with greatness,” Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn said during his visit to the U.S. Capitol building in July of 1975. The next year, largely because the author of The Gulag Archipelago had been snubbed by President Gerald Ford during that ’75 visit, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the former governor of California and a fierce opponent of communism, decided to run for the presidency of the United States for the second time.
Reagan finished a close second to the incumbent Ford in the Republican primary in 1976. His political obituary was written, for the second time, by the national media. But upon Democrat Jimmy Carter’s victory over Ford that November, Reagan began looking to the 1980 election. In that contest, Reagan defeated Carter, and as president, proceeded during the course of his two terms to revive a sagging economy, to re-inspire the American people, and to vanquish Soviet communism.
Since his departure from office, and especially since his death in 2004, Reagan has grown in stature. Forgetting that they once vilified him as a warmonger and an enemy of the poor, even the mainstream media today fondly recall Reagan’s supposed widespread popularity in his day and praise the achievements listed above (though with some qualifications in regard to the supposed inequities of the economic recovery and its long-range consequences).
To Republicans, Reagan has become the equivalent of the Democrats’ Franklin Roosevelt—i.e., an icon of his party to whom subsequent politicians must pay homage and whose mantle must be claimed to some degree by any figure in the party who aspires to the country’s highest office. Since 1997, Republican operative Grover Norquist has headed an organization dedicated to having Reagan’s name attached to as many roads, buildings, and airports as possible throughout the United States. There have been efforts to have Reagan’s image replace that of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill and even talk of adding Reagan to Mount Rushmore.
Naturally when a figure attains iconic status there is a backlash, and this has taken place, in Reagan’s case, particularly among conservatives in the last few years. Critics on the Right argue that Reagan did not govern as conservatively as is commonly believed. They point out his failure to significantly reduce federal spending or to advance the social agenda of the religious Right, particularly on the issue of abortion. Some conservatives even deny him credit for toppling Soviet tyranny. Others argue that his crusading spirit against worldwide communism softened the ground for the rise of the neo-conservative/neo-Jacobin spirit that seeks to remake the world in America’s image. These critics also point to Reagan’s frequent quoting of Thomas Paine—“We have it in our power to start the world over again”—in support of the notion that Reagan was not truly a conservative in spirit. Recently, James Antle has even argued that Reagan nostalgia misleads modern conservatives.
Below I will make the case that Reagan was both a great man and a great conservative:
1) He revived the American economy: Reagan’s innate libertarianism was reflected in his oft-stated desire to “get the government off the people’s backs.” Reversing the vision of government that had held sway since FDR’s New Deal, Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Yet Reagan’s economic libertarianism did not cross the line into some version of anarcho-capitalism favored by some latter-day libertarians. “It is not my intention to do away with government,” Reagan also proclaimed in the inaugural address. “It is rather to make it work—work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”
Though he reduced federal spending only slightly overall, allowed the United States debt to continue to grow, and failed to dismantle major federal agencies as he promised during the 1980 campaign, Reagan spent his political capital on the central part of his domestic program: cutting taxes across the board for individuals and businesses. This action alone kickstarted the economy, and the nightmare scenarios predicted by critics of Reagan’s “voodoo economics” did not come to pass. The inflation rate fell from 10.4% to 4.2%, unemployment declined from 7.2% to 5.4%, and the American economy experienced its largest period of peacetime expansion up to that time. Along with this, Reagan’s sunny optimism and can-do spirit was contagious and inspired hope for the future in Americans, spurring them to spend, invest, and start businesses. The Carter economic “malaise” and its concomitant crisis of American spirit evaporated.
2) He won the Cold War: Some on both sides of the political spectrum today try to give Mikhail Gorbachev the lion’s share of the credit here. But Gorbachev had no intention of rolling back communism when he assumed office. A product of the Communist party, his glasnost and perestroika campaigns were not true reforms, but mere attempts, a la the Czech communist leader Alexander Dubček, to put a “human face” on communism. Yet unlike previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev was a realist and may have been the only one besides Reagan to realize that the Soviet empire was in danger of imminent collapse. In his long-range view of events, Reagan displayed the conservative’s appreciation for history and the conservative’s rejection of the provincialism of the present. “The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism,” he boldly declared at Notre Dame University in 1981. “We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” As Jan Ruml, a former Czech dissident, put it after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia: “The fact that someone out there called communism by its proper name and actually did something to promote freedom and democracy helped us a great deal. Ronald Reagan was the man instrumental in bringing down communism.”
Reagan the conservative recognized that earthly life pits good against evil, and he firmly believed that the United States, despite its faults past and present, was on the side of good while the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Post-Reagan paleo-conservatism has largely adopted a pacifist attitude toward war and conflict and cringes at the notion of going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet, like it or not, there are ideologies, religions, and countries that seek to destroy the West, and to acknowledge such realities does not entail embracing schemes to make the world safe for democracy. Nor does it make one a “neo-con,” but in fact it makes one a conservative, who in the spirit of Tolkien, recognizes that “there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
3) He used the bully pulpit to support socially conservative positions: Reagan spoke out often about the importance of family, traditional morality, and the right to life. Though he has been criticized for his failure to do more to fight abortion, the president, of course, has no recognized authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions or to act against federal and state law. What Reagan did as president was to speak out passionately and often for the sanctity of human life—in many speeches, in his State of the Union address, and sometimes off the cuff. His pro-life presidential statements comprise forty-five pages of his official presidential papers.
As governor of California, Reagan had signed a bill that allowed for abortions in limited cases. These included in cases where the babies had been conceived by rape or incest or when the pregnancy supposedly threatened the mental or physical health of the mother. Reagan, who had deliberated long and hard about signing the bill, was horrified when the number of abortions in California subsequently skyrocketed from some 500 per year to 100,000 per year. (This was largely due to mothers and doctors abusing the health exception.) Reagan felt extreme guilt about his signing of the bill, later confessing that it was the single biggest regret of his public life.
He would try to make amends as president. In 1983, he wrote an article for the Human Life Review, “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation”, which he turned into a book the next year. “My Administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land,” Reagan wrote in the essay, “and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.” For Reagan, the issue of the death of innocent babies hit home. His first marriage to Jane Wyman dissolved in the aftermath of the trauma of the death of their one-day-old daughter.
4) He was a conservative at heart: Despite adopting Thomas Paine’s language, Reagan always looked to the past, to returning the country to its former glory. Not for him were progressive, utopian schemes. He honored the traditions, institutions, and people who came before him and who had built the West. His most moving speech, given on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day on the beach at Normandy was in this vein: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
Reagan’s constitutional views were decidedly conservative: he publicly called the United States “a federation of sovereign states” and sought to appoint only strict-constructionist federal judges (in this he was not always successful, especially when it came to the Supreme Court). Reagan had been a New Deal liberal until he witnessed the anti-Americanism of leftists in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s; after his political conversion, he had little time for the moderate, country-club political set that ruled the Republican party. His speech nominating fellow conservative Barry Goldwater for president at the 1964 Republican—formally called “A Time for Choosing” but known among conservatives simply as “the speech”—is still considered a seminal manifesto of conservatism.
Much of Reagan’s native conservatism and anti-elitism stemmed from his upbringing. Born in modest and difficult circumstances (his Irish-Catholic father was an alcoholic and a small-time salesman), Reagan worked hard as an actor, building a successful career and amassing a small fortune by the time he ran for the presidency. (Though many in the media during the 1980 presidential campaign tried to portray Reagan as a wealthy elitist in contrast to Jimmy Carter, his net worth was $1.5 million, only $200,000 more Carter’s.) Aides had to lobby Reagan hard to invite George Bush, the epitome of the Republican establishment, to be his running mate on the 1980 ticket.
In his abhorrence of war, Reagan was also by nature a conservative. Ironically, he was portrayed as a war-monger by many in the media during his rise to national political prominence; Ronnie “Ray-Gun” some called him. But Reagan was really a peacenik. As president he sent American forces into harm’s way only three times (in Beirut and Grenada in 1983 and in Libya in 1986). His goal in building up the American military in his first term, as he stated repeatedly at the time, was to force the Soviets to come back to the arms negotiating table where the United States, from a position of strength, could forge deals that did not merely reduce nuclear stockpiles, but eliminated them. Reagan had been deeply affected after watching the television movie, The Day After, in 1983. The film portrayed the horror of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was this nightmare scenario that drove Reagan and to try to force the Soviets to negotiate and to develop his Strategic Defense Initiative, which held out the promise of insulating Americans from nuclear strikes.
5) He was a gentleman: For a man of such ability and accomplishment, Reagan was unfailingly humble. On his desk he kept a plaque with the saying, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” Reagan lived this credo. When the American hostages held by Iran were released on his inauguration day in 1981, Reagan allowed outgoing President Carter to greet the returning captives and to have the photo opportunity. He did not brag, taking any compliments offered him with his typical “aw, shucks” attitude and deflecting credit to others. He did not put on airs as president and was not above fulfilling the smallest of obligations. When meeting Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time in 1985 in Geneva, the Reagans were leant the use of a family friend’s house in the city. The children of the family had a small goldfish, and Reagan promised to feed it daily. When he one day found the goldfish dead in the bowl, Reagan panicked, ordering his Secret Service agents to find a replacement fish that looked exactly like the dead one.
Reagan was a true gentle-man. He displayed manly physical qualities in his brave survival of the 1981 assassination attempt, and in his riding of horses and chopping of wood while on presidential vacations. Reagan unfailingly dressed the part of gentleman-leader. He had so much respect for the office of the presidency that he famously never took off his suit jacket while in the Oval Office itself. Contrast that with Bill Clinton, who let down his trousers there, and who discussed the type of underwear he wore, and with President Obama, who gave his pre-Super Bowl interview sans necktie. Even when visiting the broadcast booth during the 1989 All-Star game, the “Gipper” wore a suit and tie. In his example of manliness, humility, and good manners, Reagan displayed essential qualities of a great leader.
Perhaps Reagan’s ex-wife, the classy Jane Wyman, said it best upon the former president’s death in 2004: “America has lost a great president and a great, kind, and gentle man.” Ronald Reagan was indeed a giant among men, a true Man of the West, and conservatives should rightly and proudly claim him as one of their own.
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The featured image of Ronald President Reagan posing outside the Oval Office, 1983, is in the public domain and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.