L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 276, June 20, 2004
Ronald Reagan's Real Legacy
Special to TLE
I was out and about all day long taking care of myriad weekend chores. It wasn't until I returned home, got a cold drink, and went to check my e-mail that I learned former President Ronald Reagan had died. After announcing a decade ago that he had Alzheimer's disease, he had largely disappeared from the public eye. Perhaps that's why, though his death should have been expected, the news still came as a suprise. It also came as a bit of a shock to me personally as I realized I felt bad about it.
I can remember all too well the night that Reagan won his first presidential election. The year was 1980. I was young, idealistic, and devastated that a conservative should take the White House. My long-haired boyfriend and I hung an American flag upside down in our window that night, and backlit it with a candle. We watched the election returns by the flickering light of the flame we'd lit in protest, and lamented the bad things we were sure would come as a result. (As devastated as we were convinced we were that night, the fact that Reagan would soon take his oath of office was shoved aside when John Lennon was gunned down and my boyfriendhe who not only had long hair but affected to wear John Lennon-style glassesspent another even more melodramatic and tearful night listening to Beatles albums and drinking cheap wine.)
When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office on January 20, 1981, Iran released the American hostages it had been holding for the past 444 days. Some pundits had it that the hostages were released because the hostage-takers feared overwhelming military retaliation by the new American president. I believed those stories, but they generated no thanks to Reagan from me. I was rather more afraid of him and his administration than ever.
When Reagan was shot just a couple of months later, I was actually more upset that the incident would make him at least temporarily popular due to public sympathy than I was over the shooting itself. (Of course, if I'd had a crystal ball and known what Jim Brady's wife would do in the wake of the shooting that injured her husband along with the president, I would have been more than merely upset about it. In the end, it may be that John Hinckley's true legacy is more far-reaching and negative than even he could have fantasized.)
Still quite young, but now married to the long-haired boyfriend, I moved to the big city. Like many newlyweds, we didn't have much money, but we had a roof over our heads and food to eat. I had a good job with good benefits, and prospects for the near term were looking relatively good for us. But I paid no attention to the president's economic theories (and probably wouldn't have credited him with anything if I had). Instead, I worried about his outspoken hatred for Communism and the Soviet threat. In fact, it was during those years I became a member of the Ground Zero society (a loosely organized collection of people who promise to head for an assumed target area in the event of a nuclear attack warning, on the grounds survival of such an attack would be far worse than being painlessly vaporized). I dinstinctly recall a few occasions where jets flew too low over the neighborhood and when, for an agonizing second, I wondered if it might not be a missile instead of a plane. (I suspect you wouldn't hear such a missile on its way in, or that if you did it wouldn't sound like a jet engine, but why let the facts get in the way of a good political rant, eh?)
In 1984, President Reagan won his second term by a more than impressive mandate. He carried 49 of the 50 states. I was resigned. I hadn't voted myself. I couldn't bring myself to vote for Walter Mondale, but I certainly wasn't about to vote for Reagan! But scant months later, several events occurred that changed many of my views on President Reagan in specific, and politics in general.
In January of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off, killing all seven astronauts aboard. I remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I heard the news. I remember not being able to grasp that such a thing had really happened. Because I lived close to work, I was able to run home for lunch where I ignored food in favor of the morbid allure of television news playing and replaying the awful explosion footage. Then I could believe, and shortly after that, I began to grieve.
Long a space exploration afficianado, I've watched many flights throughout my life (including some early ones I was much too young to remember). I had, in fact, watched the first successful shuttle landing in 1981 not long after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. While the shooting had certainly generated some emotions, it was watching Columbia touch down after her maiden flight that brought me to tears. Challenger brought tears of another far less welcome kind. The day of the shuttle disaster was to have seen President Reagan give his annual State of the Union message. Instead, he spoke briefly to the country about Challenger and the men and women who had died that morning. He ended his remarks with a few lines from a poem written by a young pilot who also died tragically young, as he noted that the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of earth...to touch the face of God." His words generated more tears, but strangely enough, also brought the peace he'd obviously intended at the same time.
In April of that year, a string of terrorist attacks traceable to Libya finally culminated with one that (and you'll pardon the pun in the case of this Middle Eastern matter) broke the camel's back. The president delayed for ten days, but then he sent American bombers into the area where one of Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi's residences was targeted. Gadafi's daughter was killed, and I held my breath for a retaliatory attack. None came. And Gadafi, strangely enough, began to behave himself after that.
So it was that, in the space of three months, I learned that the President grieved while I was also weeping, and that he in his public grief successfully comforted many of us in our private lives. And I finally understood that sometimes the only way to get a wannabe bully to stop picking on you is to respond with force rather than to cower and hope he doesn't notice you again anytime soon. As a result, I began to consider some other things about the Reagan presidency a little more seriously.
The administration had long maintained that people were better off then than when Reagan first took office. I did some calculating, and sure enough: through the years, my economic circumstances had, indeed, improved significantly. I took the time to learn more about some of the larger government social programs and found that the administration had offered more than a little truth in its assertions that such programs actually held people back rather than held out a helping hand. Reagan stood up to the Soviet Union and frightened me accordingly, but his unbending stance did what no previous administration had managed: it engendered the peaceful (relatively) disbanding of the Soviet Union (and the take-down of the Berlin Wall the year after Reagan left office was the final nail that, to those of us who'd never known a Berlin without a wall, was both the most astounding and the most magnificent result of his policies).
These days, although I'm by no stretch of the imagination what you might call a Reagan conservative, I have to give him credit, too, for being the first to make me see some things to which I'd been utterly blind. I don't mean to suggest that Ronald Reagan is the best president this country has ever had (personally, I'm not entirely sure we've had a really good one since Thomas Jefferson served). But Reagan's time in office bookended some seminal points in my life. The way he handled those occasions, the manner in which he presented his thoughts and plans to all of us, and the actions he subsequently took almost certainly changed more minds than my own in ways both large and small, and took us in directions we might not have entirely expected. My own path from relative liberal to reasoned (Jeffersonian) libertarian spent considerable time making its way through Reagan's politics, and it would not have been such a passable road with such a clear destination without him.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), a staunch liberal and frankly no favorite of mine, released a statement in the wake of Reagan's death that offers his grudging respect: "Whether you agreed or disagreed with Ronald Reagan, you can't deny that he was honest, fought hard for what he believed in, and had the courage of his convictions." Those traits are, in and of themselves, an admirable summation (not to mention that Reagan may actually be the only president since Jefferson to truly embody those traits).Even without the countless words from those who knew himand those who knew of himin the coming days, that would be an honorable epitaph indeed.
His death has proved meaningful for many; but his life and words were also inspirational. Among the sentiments in his farewell address to the country were these:
"An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-60s."
"But now, we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedomfreedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection."
May President Reagan rest in peace. And may those of us who yearn for freedom remember the lessons of honesty, belief, and courage he taught even his enemies by example. May we never forget the patriotism he himself felt with such passion. I expect those lessons and feelings can serve us at least as well as they did Mr. Reagan in his desire to make people around the world more free. If we adhere to those principles and are willing to work hard, we canand we will!create our own legacy of restored liberty right here in America.