Time passes fast, yet good things happen with intent, focus, and hope. Twenty years ago, the USS Ronald Reagan was commissioned, honoring a good, honorable, strong, and history-changing American leader. In dress whites that day, as a young naval intelligence officer, I watched the carrier come to life.
Twenty-two years before that, all of America watched President Reagan inaugurated, few imagining what lay ahead, what this one resolved, faithful, patriotic, unflinching, idealistic man could achieve. On January 20, 1981, the American flag snapped over the US Capitol and Reagan began his epic run.
Under Reagan’s leadership, in rapid succession, the US hostages were freed by Iran, federal income taxes cut by 25 percent, regulation and spending rolled back, solvency of Social Security elevated, striking air traffic controllers fired and replaced, and the Soviets were told they were destined for history’s ash heap.
US foreign policy stabilized, and America’s reputation soared. Reagan’s decisive acts in the Middle East, pairing support for Israel with AWACSs for Saudi Arabia, elimination of half of Iran’s Navy when they hit US-flagged Gulf tankers, effectively ending the Iran-Iraq war – made people sit down and listen.
He was just beginning. Reagan renewed America’s battered military, restored a strategic nuclear triad, initiated B-1 and B-2 bombers, the MX missile. He stood down a Soviet-inspired nuclear freeze, brought European allies around, told the Soviets they could not outrun capitalism’s undying defense of freedom.
He pioneered strategic ballistic missile defenses, terrifying the Soviet politburo, and then met Gorbachev and told him he would share the technology, that they could eliminate nuclear weapons together. He blew the mind of the Soviets, made them rethink everything and begin to believe him.
Reagan did more. With respect for Gorbachev, yet unblinkingly faith in America’s founding principles, he conveyed a simple truism: Communism is an illegitimate form of government, oppresses the individual, dishonors timeless, God-given rights. It cannot survive. Reagan offered Gorbachev a better way.
Reagan did so much that is forgotten. He opened up energy production, established Martin Luther King’s holiday, celebrated religious holidays with conviction, started the Space Shuttle, survived an assassination attempt, protected the 2nd Amendment, stood up for the unborn, established jointness in the military (ending wasteful rivalries), helped our nation heal in hard times, opened trade with Canada, ultimately watched the evil Soviet empire collapse, freeing 300 million, and won 49 of 50 states in 1984.
By happenstance or serendipity, in 1981, 1982, and 1983, as a young man, life took me into the Reagan White House, where my eyes soaked up good men and women working tirelessly for America, President and Vice President, George HW Bush, but also Ed Meese, James Baker, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, George Shultz, Cap Weinberger, Colin Powell, Don Regan, Dave Stockman, Roger Porter, Tony Dolan, countless others.
They all loved America, stepped up to serve not to be served, not to get rich, not to write books, not to make themselves special but to give what they had to this special nation, and they did just that. They proved that where good men and women meet with high purpose, extraordinary things can happen.
My role was utterly inconsequential, a junior and temporary staffer, nothing more – but my eyes took it all in. Around me were giants. In the Rose Garden, these and others, including the First Lady, shone.
And, as in all things, time passed. Life went on, each of these patriots migrating in some other direction of service, some longer and some shorter, but all inspired by that spirit within Ronald Reagan.
Twenty two years later, on July 12, 2003, I stood and watched as the USS Ronald Reagan was brought to life, almost literally, by Nancy Reagan – who threw the switch, causing all the radars, lights, and weapons to jump to life, the massive aircraft carrier suddenly ready to confront evil anywhere in the world.
The USS Ronald Reagan has done that, too. From deterrence and combat to humanitarian aid, this nuclear carrier has changed history for the better, around the world. Based in the Pacific, Seventh Fleet, she lives in the vicinity of Taiwan, and as Gorbachev respected the man, Xi respects the carrier.
We name carriers, in many ways, to remember the qualities of those for whom they are named. That is certainly so for the USS Ronald Reagan, an unrivaled American ship, keeper of “peace through strength.”
On that hot day 20 years ago, standing in Norfolk as the USS Ronald Reagan came to life, sweating in whites but agog with the ceremony, I was in awe of this ship, just as I always was of his undaunted spirit.
Taking you back there, it was transcendent and inspiring, a powerful reminder that when we get down to doing things right, we Americans, we can do them as they should be done, and have a long memory.
Eleven months after the USS Ronald Reagan was commissioned, President Reagan died. At his graveside, Mrs. Reagan received from the USS Ronald Reagan’s Captain, James Symonds, an American flag. That flag was draped over the president’s casket. It was the same one that – on January 20 1981 – had flown over the US Capitol, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
Time passes fast, yet good things happen with intent, focus, and hope. May we never forget, or to do all we can in our time. History is made by inches, and for the better, by those who do not forget.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.