Ronald Reagan, gone now two years on June 5th, left behind a legacy as a teacher that any educator would envy. His subject: conservatism. His students: Generations of conservatives living and yet unborn.
As a Republican Congress and President struggle over hot-button issues from immigration to Iraq, the second anniversary of Reagan’s death provides a moment to look back and learn from the way he lived his political life. It might help.
The reason? Ronald Reagan had come to his conservatism the hard way. Reagan had come to understand that while times change, human beings do not. He learned, as did Lincoln, that human nature will always produce good and bad, weak and strong, silly and wise. He had come to realize that when the subject was economics lower taxes meant more jobs, not less. Reagan had seen these principles vividly illustrated as he fought Communists face to face in labor disputes, enduring threats to both his life and career. He saw the economic principle of taxation as he finally earned serious money for the first time in his life, then realized he was losing 90 percent of his income to taxes. A one-time self-described “near hemophiliac liberal,” Reagan-as-liberal had been there and done that. His conservatism was not only hard earned. Having succeeded in Hollywood both as an actor and union leader, he knew the liberal mindset inside and out precisely because it had once been his own.
Conservatism was a subject Reagan had gotten into the marrow of his bones. He had lived, thought, written and spoken of conservatism. He understood its principles, was unafraid to speak of them, and never did he feel the need to be ashamed of them. These three attributes proved to be a subtle yet distinct and critical difference not just between Reagan and liberals, but “moderate” (aka liberal) Republicans in particular. Agog at the New Deal, mesmerized by the Establishment notion that the Soviet Union would always exist and therefore should be treated with kid gloves, GOP moderates were terrified of being tagged with the usual Democratic liberal invective. This rhetoric began with words like “simplistic” and escalated to “extremist,” “racist,” “radical,” “far right,” and the ever useful “right-winger.”
Not to be missed either was the condescending tone as these epithets were delivered. Moderate Republicans not only flinched at conservative principles, they would quietly and sometimes not so quietly hurl the Democrats’ slurs against conservatives themselves. The point to their audience of the moment was unmistakable. Honest, was their not-so-subtle message, I’m not a simpleton-extremist-right-wing nut! Reagan’s initial liberal GOP rival Nelson Rockefeller had developed a decided taste for this approach, and later in Reagan’s career some of the vocabulary and accompanying beliefs found their way into moderate Gerald Ford’s assessments. While Rockefeller was prone to the more vivid language, Ford would casually dismiss Reagan’s views as “simplistic solutions for hideously complex problems.”
Reagan, amused, never flinched at either the invective or the condescending tone. “I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this,” Reagan would say in his speeches long before he was mentioned as a candidate for Governor of California, much less president. The lesson? Liberals carry around with them a sense of moral, cultural and intellectual superiority. Reagan, having once bought into this pose himself, knew it to be a fraud. A deeply secure man he was unafraid to simply stick to the subject and legitimately debate the issues while supplying plenty of good humor along the way.
HOW DID REAGAN’S PRINCIPLES work in practice? Examples abound. When the famous exiled Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wanted to visit President Ford in the Oval Office, Ford was advised by Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, that such a visit would be “unwise.” Why? Because antagonizing the Soviets would, in Ford’s view, “run the unnecessary risk of sabotaging” a strategic arms negotiation. So Ford said no to the idea of an American president (representing the good in human nature) meeting a Russian dissident, immediately telegraphing to the Soviet dictators (the bad in human nature) that negotiations, not victory, were the controlling force in the good guy’s foreign policy. Contrast this with Reagan’s crisp remark to his own national security adviser about his strategy with the Soviets: “We win. They Lose.” Nothing complicated about that. No angst over not negotiating with the bad guys. When a million people filled Central Park to protest Reagan’s policies toward the Soviets, he never blinked. When the Soviets left the negotiating table in Geneva, Reagan shrugged: “They’ll be back.” Most famously, when Gorbachev demanded a halt to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, threatening no arms reductions deal at Reykjavik, Reagan went home.
Time and again, through what Reagan’s friend and Attorney General Edwin Meese marveled was “sheer will power” Reagan never flinched when the going got tough. When liberals and some in his own party and even his own administration tried to undercut Reagan on tax cuts, Meese says the president “at no point” lost faith in “the rightness of his cause.” He persevered on his principles to the end, getting the cuts and the record-breaking economy that went with it. As liberals balked at the notion of firing 11,000 illegally striking air traffic controllers, Reagan was crystal clear: come back or you will be fired. The union refused, and he fired the controllers as promised. Later it would be revealed that this action caught the attention of the Soviet Union. In the words of Soviet expert Professor Richard Pipes, “(I)t showed them a man who, when aroused, will go to the limit to back up his principles.”
It was precisely this attitude that drove his liberal opponents crazy. He would smilingly chide them for “name-calling and the application of labels,” and promptly ignore them. This imperturbability, deeply untypical of liberal Republicans who valued approbation from the New York Times and other liberal media elites, so unnerved the liberal New York Governor Mario Cuomo that he once seethed Reagan “made the denial of compassion respectable.”
To Reagan, however, it was the reality of liberal policies that lacked compassion. There was nothing compassionate in accepting the Communist slavery of millions as inevitable. It was not only not inevitable, it was evil, and Reagan, to gasps, simply said so. The idea of government control over the economy obviously meant controlling people, a decidedly un-compassionate thing to do. To add insult to injury, Reagan took on the liberal shibboleth that problems were so complex they defied simple answers. Answers, he answered, were simple — just not easy.
SO WHAT SHOULD A MODERN DAY conservative of 2006 learn from this? Does the fact that illegal immigrants are pouring over the border stir calls for a fence? Reagan himself defended the idea to no less than Mikhail Gorbachev. The heir to Stalin’s dictatorship told Reagan during his December 1987 visit to the White House that a fence on America’s southern border would be as bad as anything the Soviet Union had ever done. Reagan would have none of it. “I replied,” Reagan later wrote, “that the fence was meant to stop illegal immigration by people who wanted to join our society because it offered democratic and economic opportunities — that was hardly the same as building the Berlin Wall, which imprisoned people in a social system they didn’t want to be part of.” John Adams could not have more succinctly incorporated the essence of the conservative principle of liberty under law. Recognizing this conservative principle, discussed long before there was a U.S. border to cross, does not mean you are either a racist or a nut to think sealing the border and resolving the illegal problem in an orderly fashion is a good idea.
Victory in Iraq? Reagan’s poll numbers in January of 1983 stood at 35 percent as he was pummeled for a policy that declared the Soviets an “evil empire.” Because he stood by his principles, because he understood the nature of human beings, their eternal yearning for freedom and had a keen grasp of what he called America’s “historical role as the spiritual leader of the Free World,” there is no Soviet Union today. A better lesson in conservatism from a better teacher is hard to imagine.
There is a famous photograph taken on September 23, 1948, at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles. Published in Robert H. Ferrell’s photo biography Truman, at first glance it shows an impassioned Harry Truman at the podium, clearly pouring it on in a campaign speech. Behind him is the Brangelina of the day, liberals Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, sitting next to their fellow liberal actor, Ronald Reagan. Yet knowing now what was to follow in American and world history, the photo intrigues. Somber, clearly deep in thought, Reagan is captured in the process of learning why he’s a conservative.
Ronald Reagan learned his lessons well, then taught them to the rest of us. Now it’s time for Reagan’s students to talk of controversial things and make no apology. Reagan’s principles — conservative principles — are bedrock. They will never fail.
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