On the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, I pause for another historic event: agreement with President Obama, who says of his predecessor in USA Today, “Ronald Wilson Reagan was a believer ... he recognized that each of us has the power — as individuals and as a nation — to shape our own destiny. He had faith in the American promise; in the importance of reaffirming values like hard work and personal responsibility; and in his own unique ability to inspire others to greatness.”
I suspect Reagan would be embarrassed by the attempts to elevate him to political sainthood. Even conservatives who now long for another Reagan were sometimes critical of him during his presidency and of those around him they believed were holding him back. “Let Reagan be Reagan” they cried, as if he wasn’t who he was.
What made Reagan a great president was that he understood America and his countrymen better than any politician of his time, or perhaps any time. He saw that the greatness of the country is not found in Washington, no matter which party or personality is in power. Rather, it is to be found in the people. Reagan awakened that dormant truth from hibernation.
Ronald Reagan didn’t need to be president to complete himself as a man. He knew who he was before seeking the job. Self-awareness is an essential quality in a leader if he or she is to avoid the siren call of narcissism and the temptations that go with the preoccupation about “legacy.”
Reagan awakened in many Americans the belief that no matter what the challenge, Americans can meet it. His opponents mocked him for what they regarded as an “old-fashioned” concept. In a time of growing dependency on government, based on the fallacy that we can’t do much on our own (and if we do we must be punished with higher taxes and more regulation), such a notion was offensive to the dominant political culture. Reagan tapped into a principle that is as much a part of our DNA as motherhood and the American flag.
Reagan’s “vision for America” mirrored our vision of ourselves: strong internationally, economically sound at home. He restored our self-confidence at a time when his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was suggesting America had seen its best days and we should trim our expectations and become “realists.”
Reagan, the eternal optimist, even after discovering he had Alzheimer’s disease, was always thinking about the future. Bill Clinton made the future his theme when he adopted Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” as his 1992 campaign song. After reading a book about Reagan, President Obama tried to channel him in his State of the Union address. It fell flat.
Trying to be Reagan without the substance didn’t fully succeed with Clinton either because of his self-absorption, manifested in the sex scandals. It is even less likely to succeed with Obama because his big government philosophy is the antithesis of Reaganism. A theme must have more than a melody. It must be in harmony with America. Reagan’s was. Obama sings his off-key.
A Google search for Reaganisms finds scores of little phrases that touched principles handed down by previous generations of Americans. These aphorisms were born of Reagan’s own experiences with FDR Democrats and the notion that the bigger government gets, the fewer liberties we enjoy.
Here are just three:
• “We have a deficit, not because the government taxes too little, but because it spends too much.”
• “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.”
• “...there are great advantages to being elected president. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret.”
Self-deprecation and humility rested comfortably on Reagan’s broad shoulders.
Reagan didn’t promise to do great things for us. He showed us that great things came from within us. Modern Republicans would do well to remind themselves that America’s greatness doesn’t lie within politicians, but within each of its citizens. That is Reagan’s legacy.