Reagan Slips the Surly Bonds

“These were golden years — when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, when America reached for her best.” — Ronald Reagan’s hope for his presidency from his Second Inaugural Address.

Ronald Reagan, an American hero, has just died. The reason he was an American hero is that Ronald Reagan believed that the phrase “American hero” is redundant. Ronald Reagan believed in America and the American people even when they were less than sure of themselves and American elites were despondent.

While others saw a sunset of American leadership and power, Ronald Reagan saw an eternal American dawn. Even when he realized his Alzheimer’s Disease would mark the “sunset of ..[his] life.” He knew “that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

While others saw an America in economic decline, mired with low employment, double-digit inflation, and historically high interest rates; Reagan saw an enormous, latent American economic strength that just needed to be released.

While others saw a mean spirited America suffering from a malaise of self-doubt, Reagan saw “a shining city on a hill” as a beacon to others in the world.

While others believed that America had lost the ideological argument and even welcomed the inexorable spread of Communism especially in South and Central America, Reagan saw the potential for democratic countries free from domination.

While others believed that we would have to accommodate ourselves to a world half-slave half-free and needed to employ deceitful euphemisms lest the Communists should “bury us,” Ronald Reagan was unafraid to call the “evil empire” by name.

While some saw a permanent wall separating East and West, Reagan stood boldly beneath Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demanded, “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Many people have forgotten precisely how much Democrats, the Left, and some in the Hollywood viciously vilified Reagan. He was portrayed, in the words of Clark Clifford, as an “amiable dunce,” whose determined opposition to the Soviet Union increased the risk of nuclear war. Indeed, the movie, The Day After (1983) suggested that Reagan’s policies might lead to nuclear destruction, much like the present day The Day After Tomorrow portrays environmental Armageddon.

When Reagan came into office he was ridiculed as a “cowboy” in the European press. When Reagan asked to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe to counter similar deployments by the Soviets, there were large angry protests, especially in Europe to stop the deployment. We know now that Europeans, especially the Germans ultimately, decided to allow the missile deployment, the Soviets balked, and ultimately all intermediate missiles were removed from Europe. Allied resolve ultimately reduced the nuclear threat in Europe. The Left and the European streets were wrong.

History has borne out that Reagan was largely right and the Left was largely wrong about the Soviet Union. Reagan was largely right and the Left was largely wrong about how to jump start a moribund economy. The current president can take great heart in the fact that many who were so wrong then are the same who are so critical of President George Bush now.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were the two most consequential presidents of the last century. Some have even suggested that Reagan was an FDR conservative imbued at an early age with an abiding faith in American exceptionalism. Both leaders led countries out of economic hard times, both led the world to victory against implacable global enemies, and both lifted a demoralized country with the sheer buoyancy of ebullient personality and perpetual optimism.

It is difficult to explain to those who did not live through the 1970s just how deeply pessimistic Americans were about the future. At the end of the 1980s, Americans once again believed that America’ss best days were still ahead. As Reagan explained in 1992:

“A fellow named James Allen once wrote in his diary, `many thinking people believe America has seen its best days.’ He wrote that July 26, 1775. There are still those who believe America is weakening; that our glory was the brief flash of time called the 20th Century; that ours was a burst of greatness too bright and brilliant to sustain; that America’s purpose is past.”“My friends, I utterly reject those views. That’s not the America we know. We were meant to be masters of destiny, not victims of fate. Who among us would trade America’s future for that of any other country in the world? And who could possibly have so little faith in our America that they would trade our tomorrows for our yesterdays?”

Reagan spoke many eloquent words, some that were meant to console others at losses. None of those words were more moving and powerful than those he comforted us with at the lost of the astronauts on the shuttle Challenger. We can perhaps be forgiven for being presumptuous enough to paraphrase those sentiments here and console ourselves at our present loss.

Mr. Reagan, we will never forget you or the time you spent with us. We salute you and wave good-bye as you “slip the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

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