WASHINGTON — This may shock you. During the eight years of the Reagan Presidency I was not his biggest fan. I looked not so much at what he accomplished but what he didn’t accomplish. My expectations were that government would get smaller under President Reagan. It didn’t. I was disappointed.
I looked at the agencies left in place — the National Endowment for the Arts, the Legal Services Corporation (which has done so much damage) and A.I.D. — and I felt that the Reagan Administration did not make a real effort to curtail them. I was disappointed.
Also there was school prayer and a Right To Life Amendment. They got lip service but little else. I was disappointed.
There was Sandra Day O’Connor who had already begun to show her independence from the man who appointed her. I was disappointed.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. The man, I thought, had such incredible potential and goodwill and yet he did not use that to accomplish domestic goals. I was disappointed.
BUT THEN, THANKS to the late Dr. Robert Krieble, my colleagues and I began to travel to the far reaches of the “Evil Empire.” We taught politics and small business. Ronald Reagan was already a few months out of office when we made our first trip. As I encountered people in Eastern Europe, the Baltics and in Russia itself, Ronald Reagan loomed as a larger-than-life figure to them. Several asked me in hushed tones if I had ever met him. When I said I had, suddenly my stature grew.
I will never forget being in Tomsk, Siberia. That was an outback place if there ever was one. A big husky fellow in the back of the crowded room where we did our seminar on how to win elections rose up. In a booming voice he asked me if we were for real. I assured him we were. Then he said, “You know Ronald Reagan encouraged us. We felt we could be bolder when he was in office. I get the impression that President Bush is not such a positive person as Reagan. What can you tell me?” Imagine that kind of understanding in one of the really remote places in Siberia. I assured him that President Bush 41 would not betray him or his people. It was then that I said that Yalta was a great tragedy and it is something I and many Americans are ashamed of. The room burst into applause.
Then there was Khabarovsk, in the Far East of Russia. There I met a General who was in charge of the military district of that whole area. He told me he used to get up every morning and say to himself “what are the ten things I can do today to help defeat America?” He went on to confess, “I hated your country.” Then he told me one day Pravda was up in arms because President Reagan had charged that the Soviets lied to their people. He said that shook him up. He said he was not sure why but that statement hit him hard. He began to investigate things. He found out that Reagan was right. Lenin, Stalin and right down to the leaders in modern times had lied to him and to the Russian people. He said he had become completely disoriented. Everything he once believed turned out to be a lie. But now he didn’t know what to believe. He took his huge hands and grabbed mine. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Please help me.” I indeed tried to, but it was President Reagan who got him to think.
Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident who was imprisoned in Siberia when President Reagan made his famous “Evil Empire” speech, came to the Free Congress Foundation when he was released. He expressed profound gratitude to President Reagan. He said that when Pravda (which ironically means truth) splashed on their front page that Reagan had the gall to call the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” all the prisoners in the Gulag began to spread the word. He said it was absolutely electric. It gave hope to the thousands of refuseniks who were imprisoned for political reasons.
I came to think of Ronald Reagan as the great man he was by talking with those he helped to liberate. Someone finally had the courage to face down the Soviet Union. Soon after we began our efforts in the Soviet empire, the Berlin wall came down. Then all of the Eastern European nations were liberated…even Romania and Albania. Then came the end of the Soviet Union itself.
Today, the nation that had been the dominant threat against America for most of the 20th Century is no more. And the successor nations do not wish us ill.
I WAS SO TIED UP with my agenda that I failed to see the big picture. Sure, President Reagan did not do everything I wanted him to do, but he changed the world. How many other Presidents can claim that? I could have pretended that I was a fan of the Reagan Presidency all along. But that would not have been honest. No, it took travels from one end of Russia to the other, much of Ukraine and ten of the Soviet Republics as well as every country in Eastern Europe, except what is now Serbia, to learn of the greatness of Ronald Reagan.
When the full story is told I should imagine we will learn of many other things this President did to liberate the Soviet empire. Regardless, the people in the former “Evil Empire” know who their hero is. I am just embarrassed that it took me so long to figure it out. Oh yes, and I am no longer disappointed.