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reaganWhile many across the political spectrum would like to discover the secret of Ronald Reagan’s success, some conservatives, believing the fortieth president a high priest of the American civil religion, have dismissed him as a barely closeted progressive who blithely saw the good in all. After all, it is always morning in America…

While one might readily prove Reagan an optimist, even a Pollyanna, optimism does not equate to progressivism. Rather, it would be fair to label Reagan a grand proponent of the ingenuity and potential of each individual person. Despite his faith in the individual, however, Reagan did not have the same faith in history itself. History is merely the culmination of billions of decisions made by billions of persons. But just as the actions of each creative person would prove unpredictable—hence, human creativity—so too would the sum of their decisions and experiences. In ignorance of what is to come, one has to possess faith in the individuals of the world to have faith in the future of the world. This is not the same thing as progressivism, which demands a confidence in the very direction of history toward some inevitable and purposeful end. Reagan had faith, but his understanding of time and history and the future also demanded a proper ignorance and humility.

It should and must be noted that Reagan read constantly. As Dick Allen noted, Reagan “read everything.” Certainly no conservative, journalist David Gergen remembered:

Working for him, I saw he was no dullard, as his critics claimed. From his eight years as governor and his many other years of writing and speaking out, he had thought his way through most domestic issues and knew how to make a complex governmental structure work in his favor. In the first year of his presidency, I also saw him dive into the details of the federal revenue code and become an authority as he negotiated with Congress. When he wanted to focus, he had keen powers of concentration and could digest large bodies of information. He was also one of the most disciplined men I have seen in the presidency (much more so than Clinton, for example), so that he worked straight through the day, reading papers and checking off meetings on his list. At day’s end, headed off for a workout and would plow through more papers in the evening in the upstairs residence. He made the presidency look easy in part by keeping a strict regimen. He also had a retentive mind. After years of memorizing scripts in Hollywood, he would recall verbatim a lot of what he had read. He recited Robert Service poems as well as he did jokes. [Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, 197]

Martin Anderson remembered something quite similar:

Working for him, one of the first things that struck me about him was his high intelligence. I can recall many times sitting or traveling with him, introducing an idea or essay or memorandum. He would grasp its essence almost immediately; then, sometimes weeks or months later, he would interpret it and weave the relevant material into a speech or statement of his own. [Martin Anderson in Hannaford, ed., Recollections of Reagan, 11]

Russell Kirk, though, argued that Ronald Reagan’s sharp intelligence was not enough to make him the leader he was. Honing his intellect, Reagan added a profound confidence, “audacity, and again audacity, and always audacity.” [Kirk, Reclaiming a Patrimony, 115]

One vital contemporary of Reagan was Whittaker Chambers. Well-known in conservative and libertarian circles, Chambers renounced communism not because Marxism was doomed to failure, but because it was morally and ethically wrong. Even after leaving the foul ideology behind, Chambers continued to believe and fear he had chosen the losing side. While we know that Chambers’ book Witness fundamentally affected and shaped Ronald Reagan, we do not know to what degree. Still, we can state with some confidence that Reagan’s vision of history and his essential faith in the future came from a rejection of  Chambers’ philosophy, even an inversion of it.

At the University of Notre Dame, on the seventeenth of May, 1981, Ronald Reagan offered his clearest statement of the imminent Soviet collapse:

The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

Yet, President Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Soviets were doomed had nothing to do with the laws of history of progress or of regress. There were no “forces” at work in history in Reagan’s understanding. Instead, the Soviets ignored an essential fact about humans: their individual and unpredictable creativity. The Soviets, therefore, had doomed themselves, whatever fates or gods or forces might rule.

In 1968, in a book all-too-easily forgotten by friend and foe alike, Reagan outlined his very Burkean and Smithian vision of spontaneous order. The book, The Creative Society, a somewhat obvious jab at and humorous take on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, published by the relatively obscure firm of Devin-Adair, sold relatively well. With it, Reagan brought together the contemporary work of Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk, arguing not just for allowing the creative energies of the individual to flourish, but of the individual within community. While governmental laws served only to diminish the good of the whole, a government of laws allowed society to grow exponentially, as it turned over the most important functions to individuals and communities.

The Creative Society, in other words, is simply a return to the people of the privilege of self-government, as well as a pledge for more efficient representative government—citizens of proven ability in their fields, serving where their experience qualifies them, proposing common sense answers for California’s problems, reviewing governmental structure itself and bringing it into line with the most advanced, modern business practices. Those who talk of complex problems, requiring more government planning and more control, in reality are taking us back in time to the acceptance of rule of the many by the few. Time to look to the future. We’ve had enough talk—disruptive talk—in America of left and right, dividing us down the center. There is really no such choice facing us. The only choice we have is up or down—up, to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down, to the deadly dullness of totalitarianism.

If Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Creative Society is progressive, it is no more so than Edmund Burke’s, Alexis de Tocqueville’s, or Russell Kirk’s. In other words, it is not progressive in the least. It is a vision of a decentralized society, a society of associations, a society of charity, and a society of entrepreneurship. Like the man himself, Reagan’s vision was, at once, humane as well as humble.

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10 replies to this post
  1. One has to wonder what Reagan’s objection to Soviet Communism was when he supported terrorism or oppression South of our border in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile. After all, weren’t terrorism and oppression practices that Reagan would associate with Soviet Communism?

    The same is true when one looks at Reagan’s treatment of and regard for unions here. Though such an association might be counterintuitive, the revolution in Russia was hijacked by Lenin and, in the words of fellow Marxist and contemporary Rosa Luxemburg, was turned into a bourgeoisie dictatorship. Reagan’s disregard for unions followed in similar lines of thought. Those who are elites should be unshackled from restraints to see how far they can reach. The Reagan’s elites were those in the business community. For Lenin, they were smart people who agreed with him.

    We could go on talking about Grenada and the Iran-Contra affair, but the point should have been made.

    It wasn’t Reagans optimism or, as some cited in the article claimed, intelligence that made him “successful.” Rather it was his charm. He had a way of making Americans feel good about America. One way he did that was to externalize evil done through his references to the ‘Evil Empire.’ Unfortunately, what was sacrificed with that good feeling were some hard but necessary lessons learned from our failures such as our moral failure in Vietnam.

  2. Reagan’s reputation among the bien pensants comes mainly from the infamous remark of the pompous Mister Clark Clifford that Reagan was an “amiable dunce”. This from a man whose career ended in having to choose between seeming stupid or seeming venal.

    An article from several years back bespeaks the real Reagan, as told by Lee Edwards.
    ‘In 1965, after interviewing Reagan for a magazine profile while he contemplated his gubernatorial bid, Edwards found himself in his subject’s book-lined study. Nancy and Ronald were in the kitchen making iced tea. Edwards was overcome with curiosity.
    “I went over and began looking at the titles,” Edwards says. “They were history, biography, economics, politics. All serious stuff.”
    “I began pulling the books out of the shelves and looking at them,” he continues. “They were dog-eared. They were annotated. They were smudged by his fingers, and so forth. This was a man who had read hundreds of books.” Edwards found these volumes highlighted in blue pen and full of Reagan’s notes and comments. “It was clear that he had read them, had digested them, and had studied them.” ‘

    So much for the double-plus-good-duck-thinkers.

  3. Give it up, Curt. The Cold War’s over. Your side LOST. Smearing Reagan won’t change that glorious fact one bit!

    • Eric,
      My side wasn’t in the Cold War. In addition, again, look at what our nation did to Central America. We suffer from some of the results. The gang MS-13 has its roots in the conflicts we sponsored in El Salvador. Or look at the kind of leader Reagan supported in Chile.

      Or economically, what has income stagnated for over 30 years? Part of that has to do Reagan’s attacks on unions.

      Could go on here but the point should have been made. And it isn’t smashing Reagan to refer to history. Reagan’s skill was in how he made people feel, that is especially true with regard to us Americans and how he made us feel about our nation.

  4. PJ O’Rourke reporting from Berlin when the Wall came down: “Some people said Gorbachev was a visionary. Yeah, a visionary all right. Like Hirohito after Nagasaki.”

  5. “learned from our failures such as our moral failure in Vietnam”

    The only moral failure was that a Communist dictatorship succeeded in invading and conquering the peaceful nation of South Vietnam. The Communists were the aggressors in that war, just as they had been in Korea.

    • Eric,
      I am going to reply to your last two notes in this one comment. First, you seem not to be aware of the complicated history of Vietnam. It was divided as a way of delegating responsibilities for the extrication of the Japanese. Following WW II, it was the French were the aggressors and with our help tried to recolonize the country. They failed. The Geneva Accords came in to mandate a democratic process for the South Vietnamese to decide on reunification. We usurped that processes supporting dictator after dictator and finally trying to set up a false democracy. We bombed quite a few civilians in the process and lost the War not because we lost battles. It was because we lost the people’s support. Now please, in detail, show me how Vietnam’s history is so similar to Korea’s.

      As for Gorbachev, he stands tallest when compared to his successor, Yeltsin. Can you guess why? You also need to go back to the Russian Revolution and read the criticisms some socialists gave of Lenin to see how true the Soviet Union was to Socialism.

  6. Curt, I’m sorry, but you cannot smear Reagan for waging war by proxy and in the same breath whitewash Soviet involvement in those same countries. It’s easy for us in hindsight to condemn past decisions but that does not give us the right to judge them right or wrong. As somebody once said, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Also, it is one thing to have charm and another thing entirely to apply it in the way Reagan did. His was an intelligent, imaginative charisma, for anything else would have made him no better than any other politician.

    One last thing: it’s not that we did not learn the lessons of Vietnam. We did, all too well (though for good or ill we have forgotten some of them today). The problem that Reagan saw was that America was being dragged down into a collective depression for which he saw no cure but to foster a reinvigorated imagination and moral conscience and confidence. America needed to be reminded that life is worth living, that the end was (and is) not yet, and that by careful, faithful striving the nation could see the dawn clearly again and behold it in all its splendor.

  7. Mr. Will,
    You have to be specific regarding Soviet involvement in those same countries. After all, is there a difference between providing weapons for defense and funding and even conducting terrorist attacks and supporting paramilitary groups. Remember that the Sandinistas overthrew an American supported dictator. But how were the Sandinistas unseated? And what about El Salvador? And do you remember what drove Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union and whom he replaced? BTW, it was our terrorist campaign Cuba that made them cling to the Soviet Union.

    But I believe your greatest error here is thinking that I am using hindsight to criticize Reagan. I am not. I am using morality. And the question you must think about is must we decide between whitewashing our past or compromising our morals to make life worth living?

    BTW, don’t misunderstand, I am no fan of the Soviet Union. Lenin hijacked the Revolution and then forever created a false image of socialism as being monolithic based on what he created. Stalin and others followed with horrendous crimes. But what democracy intervened in democracies more than several times in order to replace them with dictatorships?

  8. I blame Reagan for the comodification of conservativism. my father a First Gulf War Marine Officer, idolizes Reagan, he is very much a neocon. This is the reason I had a brief love affair with Fabian Socialism until I became an orthodox Christian and discovered authentic Conservatism, which Dr Birzer articulates most of the time rather brilliantly.

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