“It’s the laboratory — or goodbye.”
Mikhail Gorbachev barked out the words, his eyes cold, temper flaring.
Ronald Reagan sat directly across the table from the Soviet leader, staring calmly.
In the wake of President Obama’s speech to the nation last night, shamelessly quoting Reagan out-of-context to give the impression Reagan would have approved of Obama’s spend-thrift ways, another particular Reagan moment is worth summoning.
It was October 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two were engaged in the final day of a hastily called summit conference. This night they sat directly across from each other in Hofdi House, a stark, white-washed wooden building on the perimeter of the Icelandic capital overlooking the frigid North Atlantic.
Outside in the cold Icelandic darkness, the international media was gathered, hundreds of cameras and microphones poised and ready. Breaking the agreed-upon press embargo, the Soviets had already leaked to the reporters outside that the two leaders were nearing a historic agreement on Reagan’s demands for deep cuts in strategic weapons and a “zero-zero” agreement (the latter eventually zeroing-out certain nuclear weapons systems based in Western Europe and the Soviet Union). Now the media was set up, the pressure ratcheting upward with the President himself aware that if this negotiation failed — it would be cleverly portrayed as his fault. The price for this agreement? He would have to restrict SDI to laboratory testing — which both he and Gorbachev knew would effectively kill the idea of an American nuclear shield completely.
For a moment, time seemed to stop. Outside — just as in today’s debt-ceiling battle — was the press. Waiting. Waiting.
Inside, with a historic agreement to slash record numbers of nuclear weapons hanging in the balance, and a potential of banning them completely, the President of the United States considered the words he had just heard from the man who sat in Lenin and Stalin’s chair.
“It’s the laboratory — or good-bye.”
Either Reagan did what he, Gorbachev, wanted — or the Reykjavik summit would come to an abrupt, immediate end. Right now. Right this minute. With Reagan portrayed as the bad guy. The man who failed the cause of world peace.
“The laboratory — or goodbye.” The words echoed.
Reagan scribbled a note to his Secretary of State, George Shultz. “Am I wrong?” Shultz leaned in to the President’s ear. “No,” whispered Shultz, “you are right.”
And with that, with Gorbachev’s cold eyes fixed on him, with the television lights just outside the door and the world watching, Ronald Reagan delivered his answer.
Without saying a word he stood up. And he gathered his papers.
Gorbachev, startled, stood. He hastily grabbed for his own notes. He looked at Reagan and blurted “please pass on my regards to Nancy.”
Each man put on his overcoat and walked silently, side by side, out the front door into the blinding klieg lights of the cold Icelandic night. The look on Reagan’s face was instantly clear to everyone.
He was mad. Furious. He made no pretense whatsoever about the fact. A thousand cameras snapped in the darkness, transmitting the image of the unsmiling president and his Soviet counterpart around the globe. Gorbachev was so startled by all of this that he had blurted a semi-apology to Reagan: “I don’t know what more I could have done.”
Replied Reagan: “You could have said yes.” And with that, the President slipped into his waiting limousine and went home.
As the showdown in Washington between President Obama and Republicans reaches its peak, the story of Reagan in Reykjavik is worth recalling for one very, very important reason.
What Ronald Reagan was really about in Reykjavik, as history now records, was a crusade. He didn’t see the summit as one more chapter in an endless procession of summits between American presidents and Soviet leaders. That was the view of Washington elites and their international counterparts, the crowd who long ago began treating the Soviet Union as just one more respectable international player.
Reagan was about something different altogether.
“We win, they lose” he had told his national security advisor when discussing his strategy.
Within days of taking office Reagan acted on his belief that the Soviet Communist empire was not just another routine international player but rather an empire run by leaders who “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat…”
Later he applied another specific — the Soviet Union, he said, was an “evil empire.” And when he finally sat down with a Soviet leader for the first time — in Geneva with the newly installed Gorbachev — he promptly did something American presidents never did: give a stern, personal lecture on the evils of Marxism-Leninism to the head of the Communist Party. Indeed, while at Reykjavik Reagan did this yet again, with Gorbachev sitting stone-faced as Reagan began quoting Lenin. Gorbachev finally replied drily: “Well, at least we’ve gotten past Marx and on to Lenin.”
In other words, Ronald Reagan was not a man of process. He did not view the Cold War as something that was no more than a perpetual negotiating process with those who represented a system the world simply had to accept. His idea was not co-existence, it was victory.
And in the end, against all the conventional wisdom of Washington elites, Reagan won. The Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down — and the Soviet Union, unable to sustain its ideology, collapsed in on itself.
AS THE DRAMA in Washington — nominally over an increase in the debt-ceiling — reaches a climax, this is the moment to ask the question: What are Republican leaders really all about here?
Are they doing the domestic version of what Reagan refused to do with the Soviets? Treating the idea of perpetually massive, financially crippling government spending as just one more legitimate argument in a world of legitimate arguments?
Or are they willing to do exactly what Reagan did with the Soviets? Take on the philosophy behind all of this debt, spending and regulation directly, to delegitimize it by doing the functional equivalent of walking out of Reykjavik?
While today’s Republicans delight in talking fondly of Reagan, many of them are terrified of behaving in a Reaganesque manner. Normally sensible Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn and Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, Republicans both, discussed their views on Sean Hannity’s radio show last week. It seemed the only real Reaganite in the discussion was not Coburn or Chambliss but Hannity.
Neither senator was talking about defeating the Obama agenda. Each went on at length about the prospect of accommodating it. A startled Hannity pointed out the obvious: Why were Republican senators involved with creating a bipartisan “Gang of Six” when the conservative “Cut, Cap, and Balance” proposal was on the House floor?
Coburn and Chambliss both quickly replied that they were for Cut, Cap, and Balance, just like Jim DeMint, but, you know, “realistically…” Said Coburn in another venue, Newsweek, in distinctively un-Reaganesque style: “I don’t see a time anywhere in the future where there’s 60 people that’ll be in the Senate that think the way Jim DeMint and I do.” (The comment was quoted in Newsweek by the way, in a laudatory piece from the left-wing magazine calling Coburn, a physician, “Dr. Maybe.” Hmmmmm.)
Well, the number of people in official Washington in January of 1981 who thought the Cold War could be won outright, that the Berlin Wall could be made to fall and the Soviet Union pushed to collapse? One. Ronald Reagan.
The Obama era — with its trillion-dollar stimulus, ObamaCare, massive debt and all the rest — is not just an Obama failure. This failure isn’t about Joe Biden or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi any more than the failure of the Soviet system was about Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Obama failure is about the massive and inevitable failure of the socialist idea, an idea given free rein after 2008 and which is now predictably crashing in on itself.
The real task for Republicans in Washington — and for those campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination — is to push the idea of a socialist America over the cliff.
Yes, the elites will shriek. In the 1980s they insisted that Ronald Reagan was going to bring on nuclear war. Today they insist that Republicans will cause a financial collapse.
The task at hand in this debt ceiling brouhaha is not about the debt ceiling at all. It’s about changing conventional wisdom, of bringing a decades-long experiment with socialism to an end once and for all. Of establishing — some would say returning to — the recognition of the moral and economic superiority of a free-market, entrepreneurial, budget-balancing way of life.
Ideas, as is often said, have consequences. And when Ronald Reagan got up from that small conference table in Reykjavik and walked out of the summit with Mikhail Gorbachev he was in reality shaping the issues of the day — the use and control of nuclear weapons — with the very big idea of freedom.
That’s what’s really at stake in this fight. The idea of freedom.
And the real question for Republican leaders in this fight is: whose side are they on? Are they the modern version of what Thomas Paine once called in another time the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” in the fight against socialism in America? Are they going to be buffaloed by a weak and defensive President Obama who last night tried once more to panic them with poll-tested language of extremism-costumed-as moderation? As balance? Just as a defensive and weakened Gorbachev’s staff tried to whipsaw President Reagan by breaking a press embargo in hopes of intimidating Reagan into an agreement that required dropping SDI? Portraying the Reagan insistence on SDI as an extremist president’s unwillingness to compromise? The same SDI that, Soviet bluster notwithstanding, finally turned out to be a key in ending not just the Cold War — but the Soviet Union itself?
Or are they Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik? We are about to find out.