I was born about three and a half months before Ronald Reagan was elected. He cast his shadow across the world I’ve spent my whole life in.
Reagan’s tax cuts released capital that helped fuel the boom in information technology; the resulting productivity gains drove the economic expansion through the ’90s. Recessions in my lifetime have, by historical standards, been infrequent and, apart from the 1982 recession, which happened before the tax cuts were fully phased in, very mild.
Reagan inspired conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, against the opposition of the Republican leadership throughout the ’80s, to push for what would become the Contract With America in 1994. Besides shifting the partisan balance of power to this day, that was the year my interest in politics was catalyzed.
All that is preface, though, to how my world, thanks to Reagan, is so different from the one my parents grew up in: My only real memory of the Cold War is its ending.
For most, the Cold War’s end is symbolized, indelibly, by the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me it’s the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Let me explain.
In December of 1989 I was nine years old and on my first trip abroad, a family vacation in London. The Wall had come down a month earlier, and though I knew this was a big deal — a clerk at our hotel, of German extraction, was quite enthusiastic about reunification — I hadn’t quite processed the enormity of the event; I’d probably become aware of the existence of the Wall at roughly the time of its destruction.
The dictator of Romania and his wife were executed on Christmas Day. Eight years later I’d visit Romania, along with a number of other former Communist countries, and see Ceausescu’s legacy: poverty (Romania has lagged behind its neighbors in embracing free-market reform), mutual hostility between the Roma and ethnic Hungarians (whom Ceausescu had oppressed and relocated), and hideous, hideous architecture; Bucharest, the one-time “Paris of the East,” had been smashed into a city resembling nothing so much as a pile of dirty cinderblocks. Ceausescu and his wife lived in a palace with golden faucets and priceless artwork (the museums showcased copies of the originals he kept) while their people barely survived. Three hundred soldiers volunteered for their three-man firing squad; pictures of the execution were faked to cover for the fact that the soldiers fired, before any order was given, as soon as they saw the Ceausescus.
Shortly after the news reached us in London, we happened to be touring Embassy Row. When we came upon the Romanian embassy, its flag lowered to half-mast, an Italian student rung the doorbell. The man who came out (no doubt a Communist Party appointee) discussed events in his homeland a bit; I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’ll never forget the visibly shaken look on his face; the world was crashing down.
Only Reagan had the vision to demand that the world change — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” still brings a chill — and to set in motion the chain of events that felled Ceausescu and so many of his fellow monsters.
Now we face our own monsters, and look to Reagan for guidance. The April and June issues of TAS feature a debate between the dovish Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke on the one hand and the hawkish Peter J. Wallison on the other over whether Reagan would have invaded Iraq. That conservatives would even have this conversation is deeply revealing of just how much Reagan means to the Right. Reagan was fallible, after all; even if we could transport him into the White House and see how he responds to the challenges of the 21st, that would not, by itself, prove that any particular policy was correct. And yet Reagan’s legacy looms so large that to be carrying it on feels deeply important.
The world he built is flawed, but it’s better than what came before.
Thanks, Ron. R.I.P.