The story, as I once read it, goes like this.
January 20, 1961.
A car rolls along an Illinois highway, the radio tuned to the inaugural of John F. Kennedy and the start of the Kennedy-Johnson years. A mesmerized, adoring media has the full glare of its attention focused on the return of Democrats to power after an eight-year absence from the White House.
In the front passenger seat of the car, working quietly, sits a man scribbling intently on a speech he will be delivering shortly to a small group of listeners. There will be no national spotlight focusing on what the man has to say this day. There will be no cheering thousands, much less millions to hear his words. Yet the man concentrates on his speech anyway, honing and honing again the thoughts he has been shaping now for almost a decade. Shaping, sharpening, thinking them through to match them with the reality of what he has learned in his life, a life that itself began on a distant, wintry Illinois morning.
His thoughts as he has lately been expressing them, he knows, have made him unpopular in certain quarters. Unlike the accolades for the new president, the man has been the target of a dismissive yet barely restrained anger. He was, it was sneered, strident. Divisive. A voice, said union leaders of this man who was himself a union leader, of right-wing extremism. Those were the more polite criticisms in what was becoming a rising chorus of name calling that, to the extent anyone was paying attention, was long on volume and short on truth.
Later that year, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ride in the Winter Carnival parade and speak at a high school assembly of a few hundred kids a resolution would be passed by the local teachers union. Educators! They would demand he not be allowed to speak because he was, they said, a “controversial personality.” He would speak anyway, a teacher quietly coming up to him to apologize and admitting that although afraid to admit it to his peers, the teacher agreed with what he had to say.
Still later this year the man would receive a phone call he would never forget. It was a strange call. For years the man had dealt directly with the people who sponsored his speaking engagements along with the weekly television show, a show of theatrical dramas, the man hosted on Sunday nights on one of America’s three television networks. Yet this time he found himself speaking instead to an executive from an advertising agency. The ad executive was making an odd inquiry. He wanted to know if the man would be willing to continue his speaking tours but limit his subject to commercial pitches for the products of his sponsors. Would he be willing to stop making talks with titles like “Encroaching Government Controls”? The man said, well, no. He was, as ever, unfailingly polite, but he could not agree to stop talking about these issues. Twenty-four hours later, the man’s show was canceled.
Abruptly, Ronald Reagan, the host of General Electric Theater, was out of a job.
SOMETIMES I WONDER if there will ever be a real appreciation of Ronald Reagan’s sheer courage as he pursued the hard reality of advocating conservative principles. There were, that winter of 1961, no talk radio hosts to defend him or give him a platform for his views. There was no one who understood as he did, who could take the time to educate on the principles at stake, much less defend him as he lost his job for speaking so publicly of his beliefs. There were no think tanks to back him up or provide him with the material he used to present challenging specifics on taxes or jobs or national security or schools or health. There was most certainly no television network that would even consider giving his views a fair shake or even dare to acknowledge there was even a serious “other side” to the issues of the day.
There was, in short, no one out there but Reagan himself and a small handful of others who were willing to make the case for conservatism, popularity be damned, whenever and wherever they could make it. Goldwater had his Senate seat, Buckley his magazine, Regnery his book publishing company, but it was a pretty thin crowd. And with liberals riding herd with control of the White House as well as Congress, there was, as he found out with his dismissal from his job, an understandable wariness of the new people in power.
As the returns from the 2008 election finally pour in tonight, Ronald Reagan’s lonely car ride across the Illinois prairie in the winter of 1961 is something conservatives need to remember. Whatever happens this election night it will be necessary for conservatives not just to continue Reagan’s journey but to understand the principles he spoke about are in fact timeless. Were they Reagan’s principles? Yes. Hard won and hard learned they were, too. What gets lost all too frequently in our political dialogue is that Reagan’s principles were in fact conservative principles. They were around long before Reagan himself, if not articulated as well or as thoroughly.
The Opposition — what has become modern liberalism — cannot permanently succeed. Will not succeed. Ever. Why? Because conservatism is to the political world what gravity is to the physical world. It is timeless, constantly at work, manifesting itself always in visible realities. (Why do you think Rush is a more valuable media property than Dan Rather?) Were he here today Reagan would instantly understand the political shell game that is once again in progress. You can just see him listening with that patient smile as the 2008 Obama model of liberalism insists that various social miseries have emerged because of the actions of evil oil companies or a bad president or some other collection of men and women somewhere. You can just see the slight shaking of his head, the twinkle in his eyes as he hears an insistence that if only good and really smart people (like, well, liberals) were in charge, all would be right with the world. Remembering that House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to insist to him that people who made $50,000 were rich and should have their taxes raised, he would know what’s afoot as the 2008 liberals drop the definition of who is rich from $250,000 to $200,000 to $150,000 to $120,000. Then he would say with a friendly smile: “Well, there you go again.”
IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN collectivism and individual liberty, Reagan taught that individual liberty will always — always — win. It is a victory that, yes, may come slowly. But triumph it will in the end. This is why there is no Berlin Wall or Soviet Union to debate in 2008. Keep your eye on the ball.
American political life is understandably viewed by many in the four-year bites of presidential terms. Yet Reagan knew that history is a river not a block of ice frozen in time. Economics and national security were at issue when the Constitution was written in 1787 — and they remain an issue today. The difference, of course, is that 200-plus years of American history (actually, much more than that of world history) is supposed to teach to even the dull-minded, not to mention those who style themselves as The Smart People, what works and what decidedly does not.
One may wish to take a giant leap and fly straight to the moon unaided, but since Newton understood the significance of a falling apple an understanding of gravity has taken hold with most humans. To quote Milton Friedman citing F.A. Hayek, “the validity of Hayek’s central insight — that coordination of men’s activities through central direction and through voluntary cooperation are roads going in very different directions…central direction to poverty for the ordinary man, voluntary cooperation a road to plenty” is what can surely be termed the reality of political gravity.
Yet in spite of the astounding reality of progress inherent with conservatism, the so-called “smart people” — liberal intellectuals and politicians aplenty — keep returning to the idea that gravity (the success of free enterprise, competition, private property, limited government and, in national security, what Reagan called “peace through strength”) simply does not exist. Marching backwards they always believe they are looking forward. Like Charlie Brown, they believe that THIS time Lucy will let them actually kick the football.
What this says as Americans go to vote this day is something Ronald Reagan had come to understand to his core: the battle for freedom, as his friend Friedman also said, must be won over and over again. For Reagan, fearlessly clear of thought and eye, that battle was being fought whether he was speeding unnoticed across the American heartland in January of 1961 or being sworn in as president himself twenty years to the day in 1981.
SO NOW IS IT with conservatives today. Ronald Reagan is enshrined in history. But conservative principles are alive and well. If there is to be an Obama presidency by the end of this night it will be our turn to fight the latest chapter in the ongoing battle for freedom. Will it be easy? Of course not. The spirit of bullying intolerance that cost Ronald Reagan his job in 1961 is at large yet again, this time threatening to shut down talk radio or throwing reporters off of Obama’s plane or using government to investigate Joe the Plumber. There are new generations who have been conned into believing that there is no such thing as political gravity. That if only the right people are in charge of the newest and best notions of central planning and appeasement all will be well. Some hear the name “Reagan” and make no connection between his career’s worth of teachings and the results produced by the Barney Frank’s of the world, the disasters of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They genuinely do not understand that having the government take from Peter to subsidize Paul — all in the name of spreading the wealth and ending poverty and being fair — produces at its end nothing more than a vast jungle of special interest groups, fat-cat lobbyists, welfare and, yes, poverty and lost homes. Worse still, some conservatives have simply fled the field of battle altogether.
We begin again. Watching, if the polls are correct, for an Obama-era to lift off with the same moral superiority of that January day in 1961, yet inescapably headed down the same path that always ends in some version of the same way: with a government run economy in ruins and some national security nightmare stalking us all.
And if the polls are wrong? If we awake on Wednesday to President-elect McCain? It will still be time for conservatives to re-ground the Republican Party in First Principles. Conservatism is not in trouble — the Republican Party is. Too many of its leaders at the ballot box or in its conservative journals have lost sight of the blindingly obvious: Ronald Reagan was not just a winning personality whose time has come and gone. He was in fact the living embodiment of a set of timeless principles that are not only the gravity of this political world we live in but its oxygen as well.
To borrow his once famous query: If not now, when? If not us, who?