His Place in History

Saturday, October 30, 2004

One hundred years from now—in 2104—after the political dust of the twentieth century has settled, the historians of that distant time will look back and try to understand what happened. When they come to the 1980s they will write that Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest American presidents. The scandals, like the Iran-contra affair, will be relegated to tiny footnotes in a few of the history books. The hot rhetoric of the political campaigns, the cruel verbal darts thrown by his opponents, the battles with the U.S. Congress—all these will lie at the bottom of the dustbins of history. Because Reagan will be remembered for three things.

Those historians of 2104 will first write that in the 1980s Reagan presided over one of the greatest economic expansions the United States had ever seen, making it by far the wealthiest nation on earth and the economic model for all other countries. Second, they will write of something far more important. They will write that Reagan was the political leader of the free world when the Soviet Union disintegrated, when free nations led by the United States won the Cold War and ended the threat of a global nuclear war that could have annihilated mankind. They will write that it was accomplished without war being declared, without a shot being fired. Third, and most important of all, they will write that Reagan led the forces of freedom in the final battle that defeated Marxism and killed the idea of communism.

Those historians will write how communist dictatorships toppled like dead, hollow trees in the high winds of freedom, liberating hundreds of millions of men, women, and children. They will write how the statist-socialist tide was turned, how liberty went on a roll. They will write of times of peace, times of prosperity, and times of liberty—the ideals that civilized men and women have pursued since the Magna Carta of the thirteenth century, the ideas that then came within reach of more people than at any time in the history of man. They will marvel at this, and some will call it the Reagan revolution.

But Ronald Reagan would be the first to insist that it was not his revolution. No, those historic victories, culminating when the Berlin Wall was torn down by the German people, those victories came from the efforts of hundreds of thousands of men and women who fought the tyranny of a dictatorial state—and won. Those revolutionaries were a varied lot. There were the intellectuals who fought with ideas. There were the soldiers who fought with bullets and bombs. And there were the courageous politicians who led the way. The few leaders of other free nations, especially Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, were essential in this struggle. They backed Reagan, affirmed his actions, and gave him strength.

No, Ronald Reagan did not create the intellectual-political movement that swept the world in the 1980s, a movement that still rolls on with increasing power as we begin to climb through the twenty-first century. But Reagan was its political leader, its driving force. That will be his legacy. But even Reagan himself was surprised at how much he and his friends accomplished in so short a time. In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, he said: “Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it’ll end. We meant to change a nation, and instead we changed a world.”

But there is something that those historians 100 years from now will probably not write about, or even understand—and that is the spirit of what the Oxford English Dictionary now calls, in a new word, “Reaganism.” They may never really know how this one man managed to do what he has done. Oh, the historians will write of his policies and the accomplishments, the signed treaties and the economic numbers, and the times he stumbled and fell—but they won’t understand his soul. They won’t write of his love of liberty, how he wanted all men and all women to be free. They won’t write of his sense of justice, how his innate sense of what was right guided him in every decision.

They won’t write of his deep belief in God, how often he prayed, how much he believed in the prayers of others, and how strongly he felt that God has put him on earth for a purpose. They won’t write of his keen intelligence, of how fast he could learn, of how he used this brilliance to advance his policies. They won’t write of the many hours he spent almost every day, reading and writing, carving out the ideas that became his vision.

They won’t write about his feelings of benevolence, his deep respect and liking for typical people of all races and religions. They won’t write of how many he personally helped with advice and counsel, of how many he gave money to. They won’t write of how he did not suffer fools, especially if they were mean, of how he took them on and tried to persuade them of their errors.

They won’t write much about his enthusiasm for fun and adventure, of how he loved living on his ranch high in the mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, riding horses, cutting brush—and occasionally shooting a rattlesnake. They won’t write of his deep, abiding love for his wife Nancy and their children, of how Nancy was also his best friend and confidante, of how faithful he was to their marriage.

They won’t write of his extraordinary health. He was a large man, built like a football tackle, a man whose doctors told him repeatedly that his body was 10 to 15 years younger than his chronological age. They won’t write that he exercised regularly, drank very little, did not smoke, and, in general, was a doctor’s dream.

But most of all, they probably won’t write of what made all he did possible. Besides being highly intelligent and hardworking, he was tough and courageous, not in a rough or reckless way, but in a calm, silky way. Many people, even some of those who worked closely with him, never understood that behind the friendly smile and the calm there was a backbone of iron. The historians will probably not write of how deeply he was involved in key issues when he was governor of California and president of the United States, of how he took charge of everything important, of how he guided and drove events, of how he always got his own way. And they will probably never understand his cheerful willingness to stay with his beliefs, to never, never give up, no matter what the odds or what the defeat. Those things were the essence of Ronald Reagan’s soul.

They are the essence of any great political leader, for it cannot be otherwise. Without the courage to plunge in where ordinary men and women fear to go, to throw aside careers, to forgo fortune, to risk the slings of slander of self and family, to nakedly face the hot glare of public scrutiny—all the good ideas and good intentions go for naught. Without the will to persevere, the will to never give up, the will to pursue to the end the driving dream of liberty and justice—all would fail.

There is a verse written in the seventeenth century by one of England’s famous poets, John Dryden, that Ronald Reagan especially liked. Dryden wrote of a warrior who said:

I am a little wounded,
But I am not slain;
I will lay me down for to bleed awhile;
Then I will rise and fight again.

Our giant has now fallen and will not rise again. But his legend has just begun.