How to sum up the life of former US president Ronald Reagan, lifeguard, actor, labor union president, television personality, governor and lecturer? His long goodbye as Alzheimer's dimmed his memory cannot obscure his role as one of freedom's most optimistic advocates.
With capitalism ascendent and communism defunct, we easily forget the world 40 years ago, when Reagan entered politics. Free enterprise seemed to be operating on borrowed time, "saved" only by former president Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal." The Soviet Union was supposedly making economic strides; newly independent states were choosing autarkic collectivism. Communism prevailed in much of Southeast Asia despite the more than 50,000 American lives lost there.
America's political agenda was set by the liberals. New regulations and bureaucracies multiplied even when Republicans held office. Reagan's sparkling speech on behalf of 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was overshadowed by the latter's overwhelming defeat by former president Lyndon Johnson, architect of the Great Society.
Who could be optimistic in such a world? Reagan. In 1966 he ran for California governor, upending a Democratic incumbent in a massive upset. His 1968 presidential campaign was abortive, but he easily won re-election as governor in 1970. In 1976 came the narrow loss to incumbent Gerald Ford, who went on to be defeated by Jimmy Carter.
The world further darkened. President Carter disclaimed responsibility, spoke of malaise and warned of tougher times. Again Reagan challenged the odds, which seemed long when I signed onto his campaign just out
of law school in 1979. Yet Reagan won easily in 1980, confounding critics horrified by the candidacy of a
supposedly ignorant cowboy.
Reagan's policy achievements were vitally important but ultimately mixed in their outcomes. Still, he infused Americans with his optimistic outlook while confronting America's enemies abroad. He unashamedly extolled the virtues of liberty. He reminded Americans that they had always achieved the seemingly impossible. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He challenged then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on his professed humanitarian vision by banning nuclear weapons and tearing down the Berlin Wall.
Reagan's vision, so often derided as simplistic, became reality. The US now dominates the world. Where else but America do other peoples look for leadership? Communism -- the Soviet Union, its ragged gaggle of conscript allies and of Third World impersonators -- has disappeared into history's dustbin. The Berlin Wall, perhaps the most dramatic symbol of oppression, is gone. The US and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals and Washington is preparing to deploy missile defenses.
We are truly living in Reagan's world. The challenges facing America are immense, but few doubt that the US will meet those challenges. The world fusses about US arrogance and hegemony, but no other state combines such ambition, commitment, competence, energy and optimism.
The 21st century is beginning like the last one ended, as the American century. The US remains the shining city on the hill. Moreover, America's prime animating force comes from private people in industry and charity. The 20th century was, in historian Paul Johnson's words, the age of politics. The politicians used their opportunity to inflict mass poverty, oppression and murder. There has been no more disastrous social experiment in history.
Now inventors and
doctors, businessmen and engineers, clerics and hackers, and artists and philanthropists are getting their turn. They are developing new medicines, finding new sources of energy, inventing new processes to protect the environment, and creating new ways to communicate.
Our technological vistas have never seemed wider. The 21st century looks to be the age of entrepreneurship, when civil society regains its dominance over the politicians. Get out of people's way, Reagan long demanded of government. When it refuses to do so, people now push it out of the way. Of course, there is more than the material to life, and Reagan worried about the larger moral environment within which we live. But he understood that virtue was not possible without freedom.
How to remember Reagan? He was friendly and engaging, warm and concerned about even young staffers such as myself. He was bright, focused on the big picture rather than policy minutiae. He was passionate about achieving a free society, and convinced that a free society was the best way to achieve a just and prosperous one as well. Finally, he was an optimist. He believed in himself and America, and the ability of free people the world over to work together to better themselves and those around them. Reagan died without knowing how right he had been. We know.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He served as an assistant to Reagan.
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