Ronald Reagan spoke plainly, intuitively reflecting the sentiments and sensibilities of his fellow Americans. I worked in his first-term White House, never forget his guileless heart, extraordinary intuition, fidelity to principle, and life lessons. He knew what he believed, had the courage to say so. We need more of that courage today.
At the core, Reagan was about preserving individual freedoms, crediting America’s balance between maximum freedom and equal opportunity for our success. While he recognized the need to regulate excess, lift those who fell, he never confused government with God.
Our success he credited to People – each individual enlivened with limitless possibilities if we dared take risks, stand up, speak up, work hard, keep faith in the past and future.
Of course, part of this was limiting government, allowing for risk-taking, the clash of ideas, trial and error, investment and mistake, failure and recovery, reflection and correction.
He believed in free speech, freedom of religion, free markets, and freedom to keep and bear arms. He knew our greatness came chiefly from an individual, family, and local decisions. He had lived through the Depression, WWII, Cold War, seen Communism’s utter failure.
Reagan did more than talk. He led, educated by example. Son of an alcoholic father, he risked all, earned money for college (while saving 77 lives in four years as a riverside lifeguard), radio, actor, bought his parents a home, led the Screen Actors’ Guild, spoke against Communism.
Originally an FDR Democrat, he found his party left him, turned into “fellow travelers,” indulging socialist ideas, expanding government, raising taxes, overspending, anti-business, tried to pack the Supreme Court, failed to confront Communism within. He became a Republican.
But saying that is not saying enough. He did not become an “establishment Republican.” He took a page from Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and William Buckley. He changed the party.
Bluntly, persuasively, and with sensitivity, he spoke the truth – and converted others. He talked about limiting government, balancing budgets, restoring solvency, assuring inter-generational continuity, the sanctity of life. He stripped Communism of legitimacy, laid bare its repression.
Books were written about how he would never become president, yet he did. And as promised, he cut federal taxes, created 18 million new jobs, pulled us out of recession, inspired a boom.
How? Speaking truth, acting on it, taking risks, encouraging all Americans to do the same, and to remember that their history, fighting for liberty, taking risks, moral compass, small government.
Instead of halting energy production, he ended windfall energy taxes, lowered federal income taxes, slashed estate taxes, simplified our tax code, and brought many Democrats to his views.
He then called out the Soviets, delegitimizing their government, made clear America would not be complicit in moral relativism, human rights suppression, Communist lies. Bold stuff.
Critics said this was war, would create lasting damage, too bold, a huge misstep in foreign policy. Reagan never blinked. He knew that what is always is, what is not cannot be disguised as what is. In other words, Communism always fails – and he said so.
The irony is that when the truth is pursued with relentless energy – at a town meeting, school board, legislative hearing, or on the world stage – it sticks, turns heads, gets support, defines the future.
In Reagan’s time, that meant the rebirth of enthusiasm for the possible, wild dreams of individual achievement, a robust economy, end of the Soviet Union. Truth is powerful stuff.
In a strange way, it also created friends from potential enemies, forged a kind of unbreakable alloy, rare in politics. Reagan brought over rivals like Tip O’Neil and even Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan was a Polaris, North Star – unchanging in attitude, fixed point, the brightest star in the constellation, reliable. You could set your compass, navigate by him, trust his friendship, twinkle in his eyes.
If you doubt me – and in this time, some will – take five minutes, and just click on Ronald Ragan’s tribute to his archrival in American politics, former Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil (D-MA). You will laugh, cry, and see why – this is the paradigm we are missing. Start at point 4 minutes, 30 seconds, and just enjoy the goodness this man radiates. President Reagan’s Remarks at a Dinner for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill on March 17, 1986.
And where does Reagan’s example – a proud part of our past – lead us today? That is the question of the hour. That is what is missing in our national dialogue. The answer is – back to the truth.
We must know what we believe, know why we believe it, know that peace, patience, and persuasion work – if we have the courage to speak up, stand up, take risks, and defend the truth.
Specifically, we know the truths Reagan taught remain true: Free speech, freedom of worship, rights preserved by our Bill of Rights, opposing socialism, keeping government limited.
In Reagan’s Farewell Address, he reminded us of our better selves, what is possible if we keep the faith, appreciate the beauty, grandeur, and foundational nature of our nation and freedoms.
Reflecting, he said: “I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited,” and “there’s a clear cause and effect here …neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.” And all liberties contract without belief.
For all the time that has passed, his words still ring true. In these polarized times, we can draw power from Reagan’s life lessons. They apply. We are made stronger by such courage. He was.
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