137 When Character Was King


I never voted for Ronald Reagan and often criticized his policies. Towards the end of his presidency, however, it dawned on me that he was in fact an unusually gifted leader. By the mid-1980s I’d also discovered how politicians like Jimmy Carter–and propagandists for the “evangelical left” such as Jim Wallis and Sojourners Magazine–had misled me. I naively embraced Carter’s praise for Nicaragua ‘s Sandinistas as well as his doomsday scenarios regarding ecological destruction. By 1990, however, I began to admit that Jimmy Carter had nearly ruined the country whereas Ronald Reagan had revived it. And I began to suspect I knew very little about the real Reagan. So, better late than never, I’ve begun to rectify my knowledge by reading some studies of the man. One of the best is Peggy Noonan’s When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan ( New York : Viking, c. 2001).

Noonan was a young speech-writer in the Reagan White House, and her “insider” contacts enable her to add illuminating anecdotes to her story. Others provide more scholarly studies, but she brings a journalist’s skill to portraying him in a compelling manner. Her chapter on his ranch, for example, explains much about Ronald Reagan. He loved the land, the hard work involved in clearing trails, the opportunity to ride horses, the simple lodging, the beauty of the natural world. “The people who came to this house always described it the same way: humble, basic, simple, plain, unpretentious. And then they’d always say: Like him” (p. 109).

Her favorite story confirming this occurred in the hospital following the assassination attempt just two months into his presidency. Vice President Bush visited him in the hospital and found him on his knees mopping up water around the sink. Amazed to see the President in such a posture, Bush asked Reagan what he was doing. He replied that they wouldn’t let him take a bath so he’d given himself a sponge bath and slopped water on the floor, so he was cleaning up his mess. Bush reminded him that nurses did that sort thing. But Reagan insisted that he wouldn’t think of having a nurse do the dirty work for him! “When I try to tell people what Reagan was like,” says Noonan, “I tell the bathroom story” (p. 187).

Noonan’s book takes a chronological approach, explaining the importance of Reagan’s his family and Illinois youth. His devout, evangelical mother, deeply influenced his moral development–and it was her Bible he used when sworn in as President. His resolve and willingness to work led to a college education at Eureka College , success in in radio broadcasting during the Great Depression, and ultimately Hollywood stardom. Following WWII he became deeply involved in a labor dispute, due to his position as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He further discovered the power of Communism in certain Hollywood sectors. Months of intense negotiations, multiplied physical threats, the collapse of his first marriage–all thrust Reagan into a different, demanding arena. But he learned. And much that served him well in politics was learned from these Hollywood conflicts. His movie career declined, but fortunately he managed to make a living giving speeches and hosting TV series. He married again, finding in Nancy a woman who singularly devoted herself to him.

Doors opened for him to enter politics, especially following his 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater that was telecast and brought him to the attention of the nation. Reagan made the case for Goldwater “that Goldwater had never managed to make for himself. And in making the case for Goldwater, he made the case, in effect, for modern political conservatism” (p. 87). Two years later he was elected Governor of California and served two successful terms. Then he unsuccessfully challenged Jerry Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Four years later he was elected President.

As President, Reagan demonstrated his character by carrying through on his promises. He promised to cut inflation, and it fell from 14 to 3 percent. He promised to cut taxes, and the top tax rate fell from 78 to 35 percent. He promised to get the economy going, and the Dow Jones soared from 800 to 2400. He promised to reduce unemployment, and he did. He promised to lower interest rates, and by 1989 they were less than half what they had been in 1980. He promised to constrict federal regulations, and the Federal Register shrunk from 87,000 pages of rules and regulations was reduced to 47,000. And, except for the first two years, he had to work with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives!

Dinesh D’Souza, born in India and educated in the United States , served as Senior Domestic Policy Analyst under Reagan from 1987 to 1988. His Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (New York: The Free Press, c. 1997), provides an admiring analysis of the President’s political accomplishments. Like many conservatives, he early admired Reagan the man but underestimated him as a statesman. He now ranks him along with Washington and Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, preeminently in two areas: foreign policy and domestic economy.

He begins, with some arresting vignettes, contrasting the alleged wisdom of the Harvard elite with that of Reagan. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, asserted in 1982 that folks imaging the Soviet Union would soon collapse were only “kidding themselves.” Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, highly revered within the Democratic Party, praised the USSR’s “great material progress” and asserted ordinary Russians were prosperous and happy. Furthermore, he asserted, in 1984: “the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower'” (p. 2). Lester Thurow, another eminent economist, praised, in 1989, the “remarkable performance” of the USSR, equaling that of the US.

The intellectual elite, of course, loved to ridicule President Reagan. Clark Clifford dismissed him as an “amiable dunce” (p. 14). But from the beginning of his presidency he insisted that “The Soviets can’t compete with us” (p. 4). He deeply believed that America was, in all ways, superior to the USSR. Marxist ideology, he believed, was profoundly wrong and could not stand the light of truth. “In 1987, Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. ‘In the communist world,’ he said, ‘we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards. . . . Even today, the Soviet Union cannot feed itself.’ Thus the ‘inescapable conclusion’ in his view was that ‘freedom is the victor.’ Then Reagan said, ‘General Secretary Gorbachev . . . . Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall'” (p. 4).

The wall came down two years later, largely because of Reagan’s steely resolve and policies. In Margaret Thatcher’s opinion, “‘Ronald Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot'” (p. 23). To Henry Kissinger, his success was “‘the greatest diplomatic feat of the modern era'” (p. 134). He did so, in part, through his words. His “evil empire” speech in 1983 angered the dovish Washington establishment (especially State Department functionaries), but it brought hope to millions suffering Soviet oppression. That speech demonstrated “what Vaclav Havel terms ‘the power of words to change history'” (p. 135).

He was also committed to “peace through strength,” the main plank of the “Reagan Doctrine.” Whereas Jimmy Carter vitiated the armed services, Reagan initiated a massive rebuilding of America ‘s military. Whereas Carter stood meekly aside while dictatorships and Communism dramatically advanced around the globe, Reagan steadfastly resisted it at every turn. In Iran , in Nicaragua , Reagan refused to appease regimes he considered “evil.” Supporting (often covertly) Solidarity in Poland and the Contras in Nicaragua, Reagan’s efforts ultimately enabled lovers of freedom to triumph in various places. Though highly controversial, his invasion of Grenada, where thousands of Cubans were helping to establish a Marxist regime, proved a highly significant move, restoring democracy to a troubled island. Responding instantly to Muslim terrorism, he bombed Libya into reticence.

In addition to his accomplishments in foreign affairs, Ronald Reagan helped ignite economic developments in the 1980s. His hostility to big government moved him, in the early ’60s, from FDR’s Liberalism to Goldwater Conservatism. He realized that “we are all eager to play the role of the selfish looter; we all like to get money for nothing. Thus we are always tempted to support government measures that impoverish other citizens to enrich ourselves. The principle was stated by that Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw: ‘A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on Paul’s support'” (p. 100). Disillusioned with the galloping centralization of power–manifestly evident under LBJ’s “Great Society”–he pilloried its strategy: “‘If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it'” (p. 53). “He once likened the government to a baby: ‘It is an alimentary canal with an appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other'” (p. 67).

Arriving in Washington , though unable to implement his deepest convictions, he did shift the nation’s course in several significant areas. What’s now called “Reaganomics” took shape–a combination of Milton Friedman’s monetarism and Arthur Laffler’s supply side thinking. Few folks thought it would work, and spirited discussions ensued even within conservative circles. Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, dismissed it as “hopelessly contradictory” (p. 92). Kevin Phillips laughed at those who imagined “that Reagan could solve the nation’s serious problems with policies based on ‘maxims out of McGuffey’s Reader and Calvin Coolidge'” (p. 106). But the newly-elected Reagan was undeterred. Demonstrating its truth took time, and he had to “stay the course” through a recession at the beginning of his first term.

But as a candidate he’d “predicted that if his program was implemented, the economic woes of the Carter era would end and the United States would enjoy lasting economic growth and prosperity” (p. 85). And he was right! Inflation, raging at 21% in 1980 fell to three per cent within eight years. Tax cuts actually led to increased federal revenues! Unemployment went down and productivity soared. The Reagan years proved to be some of the “biggest peacetime economic boom in U.S. history” (p. 109). Despite Reagan’s critics, such as the Clintons , who criticized it as a “decade of selfishness,” in fact the 1980s witnessed “the greatest outpouring of private generosity in history” (p. 116). ************************************ Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, adopted a boy and named him Michael. Though divorce disrupted normal family ties, Michael admires his father had compiled (with the assistance of Jim Denney) a worthy book of quotations entitled The Common Sense of An Uncommon Man: The Wit, Wisdom, and Eternal Optimism of Ronald Reagan (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c. 1998). One can easily locate the “Great Communicator’s” views on topics ranging from Acting to the Welfare State, from Communism to Prayer, from Horses to Taxes. Each topic is introduced, in illuminating ways, by Michael Reagan.

Concerning acting, Michael says “Both of my parents saw acting as a process of revealing truth, not creating illusions” (p. 1). His father, responding to critics who dismissed him as merely an actor who knew how to speak, defended his craft: “Because an actor knows two important things–to be honest in what he’s doing and to be in touch with his audience. That’s not bad advice for a politician either. My actor’s instinct simply told me to speak the truth as I saw it and felt it” (p. 3).

A great patriot, Ronald Reagan frequently cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment of America ‘s strength: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret and genius of her power. America is great because he is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” In his own words, Reagan said: “I believe this blessed land wa set apart in a very special way, a country created by men and women who came here not in search of gold but in search of God. The you ld be a free people, living under the law, with faith in their Maker and their future” (p. 12).

Resolutely opposing Communism, he believed it would collapse because it was rooted in deceit. “The Marxist vision of man without God,” he said, “must eventually be seen as an empty and a false faith–the second oldest in the world–first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods'”

(p. 37). He looked at this false faith as “evil” and dared to say so. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might” (p. 101). More pungently, he said: “Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid” (p. 102).

The quotations are short, as is the book. But they reveal Ronald Reagan as witty, wise, and optimistic, as the subtitle suggests. **********************************

Reagan’s quips and phrases were often attributed to gifted speech writers, and certainly they provided much of the material he used while he was President. Recently, however, the Reagan archives provided researchers an unexpected treasure: handwritten speeches revealing how truly gifted he was as a writer, how much he read, how deeply he thought about public policy before he became President. Reagan In His Own Hand, ed. Kiron K. Skinner et al. ( New York : The Free Press, c. 2001) reveals a man largely unknown to the public. The editors give us a thoroughly scholarly work, including the original text with its emendations, suitable footnotes, and selected photocopies, of the 670 handwritten drafts Reagan wrote for radio talks he gave from 1975-1979.

Even George Schultz, Reagan’s secretary of state and long-time friend, was surprised by the cache of papers discovered in his archives. He was not surprised, however, that the paper reveal an intelligent man who read and thought and wrote throughout his life. “I was always struck by his ability to work on an issue in his mind,” says Schultz, “and to find its essence, and by his depth of conviction” (p. ix). He also appreciated the President’s “intense interest and fondness for the spoken word, for caring very deeply about how to convey his thoughts and ideas to people–not only to the American people, but to people living all over the world” (p. ix.)

The person who knows Reagan best, his wife Nancy, also remembers his life-long commitment to writing out his ideas. While many of his critics scoffed at the movie actor reading others’ scripts, Nancy says that the President “continued to write in the White House. He wrote speeches in the Oval Office, and he had his own desk in the living quarters of the White House. He was always sitting at his desk in the White House, writing” (p. xiii). Time constraints, of course, demanded that he use speech writers for many of his addresses, but he invariably played a role in their composition, at times stubbornly insisting on his own language even when more cautious diplomats sought to smooth over his rhetoric.

Reagan also read a lot! Referring to the years when the radio speeches were delivered, Nancy says: “Nobody thought that he ever read anything either–but he was a voracious reader. I don’t ever remember Ronnie sitting and watching television. I really don’t. I just don’t. When I picture those days, it’s him sitting behind that desk in the bedroom, working” (p. xv). Reading his radio talks–and noting the footnotes that refer one to the books and policy papers he referred to–persuades the reader that during the late ’70’s Reagan studied diligently as he prepared for his 1980 presidential campaign. The editors note: “We have checked dozens of references in his writings and, in virtually all cases, Reagan correctly cited or quoted his sources” (p. xxii).

The editors arrange the materials thusly: Reagan’s Philosophy; Foreign Policy; Domestic and Economic Policy; and Other Writings, which include items from 1925-1994. The policies he pursued during his eight years as president are clearly set forth in the things he wrote. His opposition to Communism, which he likened to a “disease,” his resolve to oppose every expansive move of the Soviet Union , was oft-expressed. He believed: “The ideological struggle dividing the world is between communism and our own belief in freedom to the greatest extent possible consistent with an orderly society” (p. 13). Winning the Cold War–something all the “experts” decried during the ’70s–was doable, Reagan believed. And he was, of course right. His analyses of communism in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Africa, 25 years later, prove remarkably prescient.

In domestic and economic affairs, Reagan continually decried needless government interference in the free enterprise system and called for a reduction in taxation. He believed in sound monetary practices as an antidote to the rampant inflation that marked the Carter administration. As President, he brought about a dramatic reduction in inflation–and interest rates have never soared as they did in the ’70s. He believed that reducing taxation would stimulate economic development actually harked back to what he’d learned as an economics major in college. So the “Reagan Revolution” of the ’80s was hardly a new notion for the president. Rather he believed that ordinary people, free to pursue their own goals without undue interference, would creatively shape a booming economy.

What one finds, reading this book, is that Ronald Reagan was not merely “The Great Communicator.” He had something to communicate!

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