Try this test to determine if you are easily shocked: What two anniversaries in Ronald Reagan’s life take place this week, each involving one of the two women in his life?
The first, today, is the 50th anniversary of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s wedding. They were married March 4, 1952, in a quiet ceremony in a small church in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Actor William Holden and his wife, Ardis, were the best man and matron of honor.
The second, taking place Friday, is the 19th anniversary of the former president’s famous “Evil Empire” speech in 1983. At least indirectly, another woman in his life was involved with the Evil Empire speech. Read on.
Alzheimer’s Disease has robbed the 40th President of the United States of the ability to enjoy his golden wedding anniversary with elation, for the disease gradually takes away one’s memory. And what memories the Reagans shared before his affliction! Their journey took them through careers in film, television, politics, and eight years each in the California Governor’s Office and the White House. Their mutual devotion has been widely noted and recorded. Nancy Reagan’s recent book, “I Love You Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan,” is unsurpassed in conveying the warmth and depth of the love of this couple.
As anyone who has known them can attest, their love is constant and genuine. Nancy Reagan has borne the difficult “long goodbye” with grace and courage, and these days devotes her time to her husband’s care.
One anecdote comes to mind to recall their happy days together. Nancy Reagan once remarked that she thought the perfect marriage proposal would be one made in a canoe while the woman sat back, dabbling her fingers in the water. Her husband — then between his governorship and the presidency — bought a canoe, named it “TRU LUV” and launched it on Lake Lucky, the pond on their ranch north of Santa Barbara. On their 25th wedding anniversary, in 1977, he took Nancy for a spin in the canoe and repeated his original proposal of marriage — while she dabbled her fingers in the lake.
Yet there was “another woman” and he told his wife about her. On July 3, 1986, as they flew in the presidential helicopter over New York harbor, he said, “There’s the other woman in my life,” pointing to the Statue of Liberty, which he was to rededicate that night. “Lady Liberty” had been restored from top to bottom, after a century. That night, just before he flipped the switch that relit the statue, President Reagan said, “…our work can never be done until every man, woman and child shares in our gift and our hope, and stands with us in the light of liberty.”
That’s where “the other woman” comes into the Evil Empire speech. Reagan was in Orlando, Florida, to address the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. The conventioneers were to discuss proposals favoring a unilateral “nuclear freeze,” an idea much liked by the American left (and which quietly pleased the leaders of the Soviet Union). He urged his audience not “to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire; to simply call the arms race a misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
What he called “the light of liberty” at the statue’s rededication was a subtext of his strategy to bring an end to the Cold War. It began with the enunciation of what came to be called The Reagan Doctrine to the British parliament in 1982 (pledging encouragement to dissidents and democratic movements in countries behind the Iron Curtain). It moved on to the Strategic Defense Initiative, the deployment of cruise missiles in Western Europe (to checkmate mid-range Soviet missiles), and ultimately to the first two summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan knew that the Soviet Union’s economy was being strained to the breaking point. If he could force it right to the edge, some Soviet leader would recognize the need to reduce, not expand arms. Gorbachev turned out to be that man, and since then “the light of liberty” has shone in many corners where there had been only the darkness of totalitarianism.
Calling the Soviet Union’s vast holdings an “evil empire” brought gasps of horror from many in the foreign policy establishment, media pooh-bahs and academics. Men who had invested their entire careers in Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD” for short) were certain that these words would destabilize the world. Yet what Reagan said was what millions of ordinary people knew to be true. Today there is wide agreement that Reagan’s honesty contributed to the process of moving the Cold War toward its culmination.
Just as Reagan’s “evil empire” comments brought a rain of criticism on him, so, too, has President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comment in his State of the Union speech. Few people understood in 1983 how Reagan’s remarks fit into a purposeful and carefully developed strategy whose seeds had been planted well before he became president. Bush was criticized for not spelling out his strategy; for not saying precisely what he would do about each of the three countries named — Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Would you telegraph your punches if you were in Bush’s shoes? Reagan didn’t and Bush won’t. The pooh-bahs will simply have to bite their nails and wait.