Ronald Reagan’s White House, between 1981 and 1983, was a dynamic, inspiring, almost electric place to work. People walked on air, worked to all hours – particularly people like Dave Stockman and Roger Porter, Ed Meese and Jim Baker. Late at night, you could almost hear the Liberty Bell ringing.
The place, times and man radiated a sense of destiny, putting the world right, lifting the human spirit. We need that spirit of hope, opportunity, can-do and oneness again. Here is a secret – it is there to be found. The Liberty Bell still rings.
Reagan was a conservative. They say he was elected on six words: Strong defense, smaller government, lower taxes. To that, add a good moral compass, no confusion on faith, conscience or commitment. He had a knack for plainly explaining the “why” behind moral values and American history – to everyone.
He kept faith with the past, the kind of faith that comes from surviving hard times, an alcoholic father, The Depression, World War II and, as California’s Governor, the rocky 1960’s. He had grounding, and therefore could communicate why history and grounding mattered, from Normandy to tearing down the Berlin Wall.
Reagan could appreciate America’s innate goodness, greatness, destiny and unity. He was also gifted at conveying it to America with lightness and persuasion, not with hurry or fury, just straight talk. He defended our Constitution, limited government, separation of powers, democracy, capitalism, liberty, equality, a strong military, and genius of average Americans. He foresaw and facilitated the Soviet Union’s collapse; he never wavered, because he had a long view.
In a nutshell, Reagan had foresight, conviction, faith in a loving God, an understanding that America was not an accident, that our trajectory was meaningful – and that it pointed somewhere good and important. And what was America? It was ideals made real by belief in ourselves – the burdens, benefit and benevolence of being American.
His magic was the ability to pivot to the positive, after explaining the stakes. He restored un-stumbling belief in America’s character and future, the ability to overcome long odds, love our neighbor and be our best. Asked to look inward, we did – and found the courage that we had forgotten we had.
Other presidents have sounded that note – realizing that America is best when “We, the People” are each at our best. John Kennedy reminded us – regardless of creed, trade, race, rank or root – to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Abraham Lincoln closed his First Inaugural thus: “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
That, of course, is what Reagan believed and communicated, to each of us. We have it in us to be our best, lift our neighbor, preserve the “bonds of affection.” If we work to stay grounded in history, ideals and a sense of destiny, we can hear the Liberty Bell and those “mystic chords” sounded in Lincoln’s appeal to our “better angels.”
That brings me to today. We Americans are at a time of peril, promise and decision, again. We can go one way, or the other. We have slid into reflexive hostility to one another. We can continue sliding, dividing and diminishing, or we can consciously stop the slide.
How do we stop the slide? How do we restore “One Nation under God, indivisible,” overcome hostility and allow the “memory to swell” and hearts to be “touched” by what Lincoln and Reagan termed “the better nature of our angels?” By remembering our remarkable history and resolving to be equal to it.
We can each take responsibility for how we interact with each other, how often we reach to help, forgive, talk quietly, and offer an unsolicited smile. We can relearn our history, and appreciate it – loving it, being inspired by it.
One last thing. This would be an optimal time to see President Trump do as Reagan did, pivot to asking the American People to be all they can be. Presidents have a unique ability to set and reset tone, from what Theodore Roosevelt once called the “bully pulpit.”
In fairness, President Trump has used the bully pulpit well, to explain his priorities, restore respect for the Constitution, American flag, sanctity of citizenship, inviolate nature of the border, importance of our military, economic liberty, equality of opportunity, and capitalism’s power. He has challenged longstanding assumptions about bureaucracy, big business, the labor market, tax policy, national and international expectations.
Reagan did that, albeit with a different style. Reagan attempted to remake government smaller, reduce regulations, cut taxes, restore individual liberty, rebalance trade, inject moral compass, and resurrect an understanding of America’s proud past.
But Reagan did more that. He earnestly asked Americans – as Lincoln and Kennedy had – to refresh expectations of themselves, believe again in each other, and believe firmly in one America.
That is where we are. President Trump could take a page from Ronald Reagan. He could consciously shift tone, and offer a vision rich with hope, fidelity to history – and calling out our “better angels.”
Using the bully pulpit to remake government is hard enough. Using it to inspire, lift distraught souls, assuage fears, and cause people to think about what is possible, what they can be – is harder.
Reagan was a master, to profound effect. President Trump has the opportunity, if he chooses. This would be a good time. Reagan lifted the human the spirit, across America. The secret? Reagan knew we had it in us, all along. We still do. We just need to be asked – to be our best. The bell still rings – always has.