Take a moment to recall a great American. February 6th was Ronald Reagan’s birthday. Remembering his leadership is like drawing clear water from a deep reservoir — light dances on the surface, goodness beneath.
Having once worked in his White House, this day reminds me – each year – how lucky we are. To have lived in Reagan’s time, watching a guileless man, comfortable in his skin, never giving up on his critics, self-assured, self-aware, the perennial educator, was a blessing.
To hear Reagan talk was like listening to a wrinkled, mirth-filled farmer discussing the turn of seasons, confident in his life experience, sure he could help you with what he knew. A veteran of good times and bad – childhood poverty, alcoholic father, Great Depression, World War II, then Hollywood and California governorship – he knew the arc. His conservatism was genuine.
Somehow, Reagan managed to keep his sense of humor. Running in 1976, losing to Gerald Ford in the Republican primary, then running again in 1980, his charm was not taking himself too seriously, yet never losing sight of his mission: Preserving America’s freedom into the future.
One story captures it. As Reagan regaled, a pastor once approached him after a speech. “Ron,” he said, “I was once transferred to a little church, found just one parishioner on Sunday, so asked if I could deliver my sermon … He said, ‘Well, I’m just a little cowpoke from Oklahoma, but if I took my wagon to the backfields and found just one heifer, I’d feed her.’
So, I held forth…”
Reagan could tell a story. The pastor, he said, eyed him closely. “Well, I wrapped up after an hour or so, and asked what he thought … He looked at me Ron, and said ‘Reverend, as I told you I’m just a little cowpoke, but if I took my wagonload to the backfields and found just one heifer, I sure wouldn’t have fed her the whole thing!” That was Reagan, self-deprecating, big smile.
Reagan rebuilt America’s economy, boldly cutting taxes, regulations, and federal bureaucracy. He made no apologies for being conservative. He inherited a paralyzing recession, punctuated in 1979 by “stagflation,” 13.4 percent inflation, 7.8 percent unemployment.
Reagan never blinked. He turned Americans’ genius loose, ushering in a boom. One year, he created a million jobs a month. Liberal economists winced, but he put faith in the American worker, not federal largess. The results were extraordinary. They called it Reaganomics, and all boats rose.
Liberal critics never say, “sorry, you were right,” so Reagan gently said it for them. As growth soared, jobs multiplied, inflation dropped to 4.6 percent, unemployment to 5.4 percent, then lower, Reagan credited the American people. He quipped, “Well, liberal economists are after me again … They say, ‘Ok, ok, so it works in practice, but does it work in theory?’” And he smiled.
Abroad, he looked unblinkingly at the Soviet Union, spoke of their illegitimacy, immorality, and inhumanity. He declared them an “evil empire,” challenged a communist leader to “tear down this wall” in divided Berlin. Within a decade, the Soviet Union was no more.
Soviet Communism was, as Reagan predicted it would be, left on “the dust heap of history.” The young leader – Mikhail Gorbachev – pivoted on Reagan’s prod, and came to admire Reagan. What do they say – the truth will set you free? Well, it set 300 million people free.
Conversely, without apology, Reagan celebrated America’s exceptional qualities, our historic goodness, can-do approach to big problems, never-say-die temperament, heroic past. Not a boast, he simply observed where freedom leads, the trajectory on which predecessors had set us. His aim was to awaken in us our duty, help us see what we owe to the future.
Reagan’s references to history were factual, although he loved stories. He reinforced the power of individual resolve and national unity, especially under fire. His speeches at his First Inaugural, Normandy, Brandenburg Gate, following the Challenger disaster, and his Farwell in 1988 are epic.
He educated America that we have always rallied, can rally, and should rally to overcome hardships by sticking to core values – a love of freedom, unwavering faith in who we are, and the power of Providence to fill sails of those who believe.
He did not sugarcoat the need to sacrifice, the downward drag of grief, the pain often associated with doing the right thing, or weathering a violent storm, at home or abroad. Instead, he called – as Lincoln did – on the “better angels of our nature,” as a source of strength. And sometimes, that is all it takes.
How soon we forget. Maybe that is the point, why we are drawn back in time – to recall his resolve and leadership – on Reagan’s birthday. In 2020, America’s 40th President would be 109, as he was born in 1911.
But his spirit is vibrant, forever young, a timeless source of strength. His example is relevant today, just as his living leadership was central to our past.
Americans of a certain age remember Reagan’s unbounded optimism, grounded in proofs of history, rewarded by changing history. They will recall his progeny, prescience, and legacy. Most of us smile as recall of the period washes over us, unbroken ascendance, no shrinking.
But there is more to Reagan than the man or even his fidelity to timeless principles. Reagan led America; he also reflected the America of that time. We were a nation who believed in ourselves. He simply focused that belief on worthy objectives. The beginning of wisdom is believing again in ourselves, that we can be “one nation under God, indivisible.”
As a young staffer, I watched in awe as President Reagan cheerfully spoke words few dared: That America was good and giving, strong, sacrificing, inspired, and unique in human history, objectivity exceptional. At the center of it was liberty, which he lived to preserve.
In the glow of his birthday, may Reagan’s lessons continue to shine. Applying them starts with remembering, dipping from the reservoir –no apologies – to catch the light that dances on the surface, and goodness beneath.