Flashback

R.I.P. Ronald Wilson Reagan: Jul.-Aug. 2004

Reflecting on an American life.

By From the July-August 2004 issue

Send to Kindle

In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


Ronald Reagan has finally been freed from the dark and lonely silent shroud that had imprisoned his spirit and silenced his voice for over ten years. What a perversely cruel purgatory for such a gregarious and brilliantly communicative man.

We now grieve for him, for his extraordinarily lovely, loyal, and courageous love, Nancy, and for ourselves. But we may now also sing—lift our voices in praise and thanks for the gifts that this gentle, humble, gracious giant bestowed upon America and the tens of millions of people on this planet who now live in freedom because Ronald Reagan heard their pleas and became their voices. We could not eulogize him while he was alive, but we may now give words to long pent-up emotions, relive memories, and express gratitude for the liberty, prosperity, and confidence that he returned to and preserved for us during his lifetime.


Ronald Reagan possessed a fundamental and unshakable faith that God had truly blessed America. His very existence seems to have proven his point and vindicated his conviction.


Much has been made of Ronald Reagan's modest beginnings in the heartland of small town middle America in Tampico, Illinois, and his journey west to California. What, after all, could possibly be more American than the family into which he was born, his education in a tiny Midwestern college, summertime work as a lifeguard, describing unseen baseball games to radio audiences, migration westward to an acting career in Hollywood, leadership of a trade union, and a lifelong love of horses and open spaces?

Yet his career in Hollywood and his Hollywood-like life story, his humility, his easy congeniality, and his modesty seemed to camouflage his powerful underlying talents, and to confuse and confound his adversaries for nearly his entire life. How could they take seriously someone whose profession was fantasy, whose skill was uttering words crafted by others?

The sophisticated leaders of our country and in the rest of the world, the graduates of the elite universities, and the movers and shakers of the powerful media persistently dismissed Ronald Reagan as a B movie actor, an amateur cowboy, a simple-minded buffoon, and a puppet who bounced and swayed while others pulled barely concealed strings. The collective scorn, disbelief, and condescension expressed in the media and by the politically savvy incumbents in Washington when he dared to seek and then win the presidency was nearly universal. How utterly wrong these presumably smart and educated people repeatedly proved themselves to be.

What they simply could not see was that behind the twinkle in Ronald Reagan's eyes, beneath that warm and sunny exterior, under that anecdotal wit and modest, self-effacing humility, was a man of enormous skills, unshakable convictions, brilliant instincts, and truly formidable talents.

The deluge of commentary and sentiment unleashed by Ronald Reagan's death will be washing over us for months and years. And we will be learning new details, fresh surprises, and heretofore hidden revelations in the time ahead of us. Each new piece of the mosaic has seemed to make him larger and more remarkable. But, what we know now is that virtually every person alive today is indebted in some way to Ronald Reagan.

The greatest of these debts, of course, is Ronald Reagan's inestimable contribution to peace and liberty. Not just the end of the Cold War; that is only part of the story. But to the ultimate and complete disintegration of the Soviet Communist empire. No thoughtful person would say that he did it alone, but it is no exaggeration to say that there is no single human being, living or dead, who had more to do with making it happen. And, had any other person served as president of the United States during 1981-1988, one shudders to think of where events may have taken us or where we might be today.

We lived in a world in 1980 of frightening and growing Soviet power and expansion, competing nuclear arsenals capable of destroying life on this planet within minutes, children taught to huddle with fright beneath their school desks during air raid drills, a culture of bomb shelters and mushroom clouds, the specter of nuclear winters, and a nearly overpowering world-wide political sentiment to buy peace or yield in Chamberlain-like increments to Soviet terror. The people of the Soviet world lived in gray, dispirited desperation with little hope for freedom, happiness, or prosperity, enduring interminable lines for toothpaste, meat, or toilet paper, and facing the very real chill of gulags, starvation, execution, the ubiquitous presence of secret police, and religious persecution.

Into this dreary and frightening reality strode Ronald Reagan, who reminded the

American people of their history,
 destiny, and strength, and spoke
 directly to the despairing hope of
 millions of Communism's victims.
 He dared to stand up to the Soviet
 bully, force-marched America back
 to military strength, and squeezed
 the economic breath out of the 
Communist tyrant. When Ronald
 Reagan had the audacity to describe
 the Soviet menace as an "evil 
empire," he was widely deplored and
 ridiculed, but he was speaking the absolute truth. He knew what those
 words signified and he would not be 
intimidated into polite, diplomatic
 euphemisms or silence. When he 
implored Gorbachev to "tear down 
this wall," his four simple words
 were a beacon to millions of Iron Curtain slaves and a chilling threat 
to their brutal masters. To the astonishment of the elite sophisticates 
who sneered at his words at the time, 
they saw them come remarkably true just a few short unbelievable years later.

Can anyone begin to estimate the number of people who might have died in nuclear or conventional wars, from starvation, or in prison if the Soviet Union and its ruthless ambition to dominate the world had not been extinguished? Can anyone doubt, after reading Ronald Reagan's early 1980s speeches consigning the Soviet Union to the "ash bin of history," that this man believed it would happen, knew what it would take to make it happen, and through sheer force of conviction and leadership made it happen?

And Ronald Reagan was just as right, just as determined, and just as successful in bringing down inflation and taxes and restoring the American economy. When he was elected president, these two destructive forces—inflation in the vicinity of 20 percent annually and federal income taxes alone at a marginal rate of 78 percent—were sucking the vitality and spirit from the American economy, and incentive from its greatest productive force, the American people. Yet again, Ronald Reagan saw what needed to be done to return their lives and economic freedom to the American people. He pushed, pulled, forced, and cajoled the political process, often over the thinly concealed opposition of some of his closest advisers, and made it come about. How different, how incredibly more prosperous, America is today as a consequence.

Ronald Reagan was able to see these dangers and the solutions to them, and others as well, because he possessed an unshakable belief in the American experience, its history and its people.

We have no shortage of cynics, critics, doubters, and disbelievers in this country. And, somehow, the worlds of communications, entertainment, and education possess a significantly disproportionate share of them. Their influence can be overwhelming and their collective impact on American leaders and American spirit can be discouraging, disheartening, and enervating. We may characterize these emotions as apathy, self-doubt, uncertainty, or, to use the term popularly associated with the Carter presidency, malaise.

However the pathology may be defined, America was sickened with it in the 1960s and 1970s. Vietnam, the tensions incident to the transition to a more equal society, a listless economy, the enduring pressures of the Cold War, an energy crisis, and ineffectual uninspired political leadership, had taken a toll on the American people, their drive, and self-confidence. The nation was stagnant and sinking.

Ronald Reagan, the elite press is fond of saying, came from nowhere. How simplistic and how wrong. Ronald Reagan came from the very heart of America. He believed in the words of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. He believed in freedom, equality, and the elevating spirit of economic liberty. He believed that no engine ever invented by man, and certainly no engine ever created by government, was as powerful as the unrestrained might of the American worker and the American creative genius.

And Ronald Reagan preached that religion, and his belief in one nation, under God, relentlessly, with unshakable confidence, and the persuasive force of a brilliant communicator who could write and speak like a dream, and with the passion of an evangelical.

Ronald Reagan’s conviction, confidence, and enthusiasm were contagious. It spread to all parts of the American populace. It pierced right through the cynics and disbelievers in Washington, New York, and the big cities of California, and washed over the American people, bathing them in renewed belief in their strength, their decency, and their capacity to re-capture the vitality that their leaders had convinced them they had irretrievably lost. Just as Ronald Reagan promised, America experienced a new awakening.

The American sophisticates could not foresee Ronald Reagan's impact on the American people, and could not comprehend his success, because they did not understand the man, his message, or his audience. Ronald Reagan understood all three. So the power of Ronald Reagan and the persuasiveness of his message were never fully comprehended by many of America's self-anointed opinion leaders. Even after his death, they attributed his successes to his acting ability, his way with television, his good humor, or his good looks. To this day, many of them don't understand that the key to Ronald Reagan's success was that he was an American, through and through, that his message was the message and promise of America, and his strength was the strength of the American ideals of freedom, equality, and liberty.

We now pause to thank Ronald Reagan and his memory for the end of the Cold War and for the return of American economic prosperity. Most of all we thank him for the re-birth of America and the American dream. Whenever we begin to doubt ourselves and the principles for which America stands, we have only to remember Ronald Reagan and the many ways in which he embodied the best we have ever produced, the best we can be.

The subtitle to Ronald Reagan's biography was "An American Life." How very fundamentally true. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Theodore B. Olson is the former solicitor general of the United States.