Ronald Reagan’s “spirit” is worth recalling, rejoicing in. His spirit embodied hope, based on truth and experience. He died 18 years ago this week, but his life, leadership, and love of America changed the world – and remained undying. They are a reservoir of hope that changed us all.
It seems like yesterday; I was a young man working in Reagan’s White House, enthralled. Later came a visit with him in California. Then, in 2004, working for his former National Security Advisor and then-Secretary Powell, Reagan’s caisson, rider-less horse, passed state in silence.
At 21, fate deposited me in Reagan’s White House, wide-eyed, filled with wonder. No national leader could have poured more content into my wide eyes and wishful soul. Not once did Reagan appear, in three years, less than earnest, sincere, kind, and perennially thoughtful.
He was straightforward, funny, almost whimsical at times, yet clear in his convictions, one of which was never to take offense from someone else’s bad day. He passed that attribute to Powell, but in his White House years – with all their own stress – Reagan lived the idea.
Unlike many modern leaders, Reagan saw himself not as the center of the universe, but as a steward of the Republic, just the man who – for a time – was entrusted by good Americans to “do the right thing”.
And right thing he did. Believing in America’s genius, he cut federal income taxes dramatically. He was convinced that more freedom to earn meant higher employment, productivity, wages, and individual wealth, which they did.
This, he believed, would raise returns to the government beyond anything possible from higher taxes, which tend to reduce incentives to earn, retarding consumption, private investment, employment, productivity, wages, and wealth.
Right again. In his first three years, he cut taxes 25 percent. In eight years, he created 18 million jobs. Recession ended, America’s standard of living rose, prosperity proliferated.
On the international front, he dismayed critics on the left by refusing to call the Soviet Union legitimate. Doggedly, with conviction, humor, and seriousness, he challenged everything about Communist domination of Russia and Eastern Europe. He did not let up.
On policy, he advanced freedom. He recommissioned America’s big battleships, spurred military modernization, initiated ballistic missile defenses, and directly confronted – with the US Navy – Iran and rogue states. He believed in “peace through strength,” not a slogan, a strategy.
He convincingly validated anti-Soviet dissidents and freedom movements, from Poland’s Solidarity to individual dissidents. He met 96 dissidents inside the Soviet Union in 1988.
History records Reagan’s untiring good humor and patience in writing to, meeting with, confronting and eventually converting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, nothing short of miraculous. Without war, after 70 years of Communism, 40 of Cold War, Reagan and Gorbachev brought an end to that “evil empire.”
But the magic of Reagan was not conservative polices, not really. It was the man, his kindness, good heart, ability to see what others did not – to trust the possible. He saw an opportunity for conversion through education, forgiveness, trust not judgment, thought souls redeemable.
His good heart and lifetime conviction that freedom mattered were paired with leadership qualities – honesty, expectation, clarity, accountability, resilience, not taking things personally.
These attributes he found in or passed to Powell, but more he passed them to all of us, the notion that, if you can envision a moral outcome, no matter how difficult, unlikely, or arduous, you can – with faith – make it happen. Too often we forget that, and yet he proved it repeatedly.
As we await a declaration by the Supreme Court, almost 50 years in the making, that the Constitution does not contain a right to abortion, we feel the wave of Reagan’s influence – and faith in the American people, process, institutions, and goodness.
His little 1983 book, “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation,” was not offensive or judgmental, even 40 years ago. It was a plea, request, appeal to the conscience of every American to think hard about stakes, acknowledge only God knows when life begins – not us – and so, decide to err on the side of caution, since being wrong carries grave consequences.
More broadly, Reagan trusted the conscience of our nation and each of us on every issue. He believed we were and would be a good, other-regarding, sacrificing people – determined to preserve our freedom. He lived a life that celebrated this. He was that WWII generation.
If you ever tire of modern politics, and we all do, look up Reagan’s comedy lines, speeches, examples – hundreds – of good humor, good will, earnest love of our country. You will sleep better, as he surely did. Having seen him up close, my memory passed on is – he was real.
Eighteen years ago this week, after watching Reagan’s caisson pass the State Department, eyes on, everyone silent, circumstances placed me in an elevator with the Secretary. The topic of Reagan surfaced, and my thought was that some policy or story would emerge. But no…
Almost as whimsically as Reagan himself might have, Powell said simply, “It was Reagan’s spirt that moved things … just his spirit.”
That same spirit – irrepressibly positive, cheerful in adversity, aware of risk and reality, never beyond envisioning the possible or impossible and working for it – is buried in all of us. It is America. None of that has changed, as it is timeless. The key is remembering, and drawing from that deep well of wisdom, for the future we want. Reagan did that, and his inspiration lives.