The second-greatest president of the 20th century dies (with Theodore Roosevelt coming a close third), and the liberal establishment that alternately ridiculed and demonized Ronald Reagan throughout his presidency is in a quandary. How to remember a man they anathematized for eight years but who enjoys both the overwhelming affection of the American people and decisive vindication by history?
They found their way to do it. They dwell endlessly on the man's smile, his sunny personality, his good manners. Above all, his optimism.
"Optimism" is the perfect way to trivialize everything that Reagan was or did. Pangloss was an optimist. Harold Stassen was an optimist. Ralph Kramden was an optimist. Optimism is nice, but it gets you nowhere unless you also possess ideological vision, policy and prescriptions to make it real, and, finally, the political courage to act on your convictions.
Optimism? Every other person on the No. 6 bus is an optimist. What distinguished Reagan was what he did and said. Reagan was optimistic about America amid the cynicism and general retreat of the post-Vietnam era because he believed unfashionably that America was both great and good -- and had been needlessly diminished by restrictive economic policies and timid foreign policies. Change the policies and America would be restored, both at home and abroad.
He was right.
Moreover, at the time, Reagan's optimism was deemed pejorative. It was the cockeyed optimism of the simpleton, a man too shallow, unsophisticated, unschooled and unthinking -- in short, too stupid -- to know better. An "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford, wisest of the Washington wise men, dubbed him. Justin Kaplan's 1992 edition of Bartlett's has only three quotes from Reagan -- all trivial, all designed to make him look silly. It was only under pressure that the next edition added "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and other historic lines.
Clifford and Kaplan spoke for an establishment that considered Reagan a simplistic primitive -- whose simplistic primitivism was endangering the world. These were the twin themes: Reagan was stupid, and his stupidity made him dangerous. Those too young to remember the 1980s would be astonished to know how common the notion was of Reagan as a warmonger.
In the early '80s, the West experienced a nuclear hysteria -- a sudden panic about imminent nuclear destruction and a mindless demand to "freeze" nuclear weapons. What had changed to bring this on? Reagan had become president. Like George W. Bush today, the U.S. president was seen as a greater threat to peace than was the enemy he was confronting.
The nuclear freeze and the accompanying hysteria are an embarrassment that liberals prefer to forget today. Reagan's critics completely misunderstood the logic and the power of his nuclear posture. He took a very hard line on the Soviets, who had broken the nuclear status quo by placing missiles in Europe. Backed by Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, Reagan faced the Soviets down -- despite enormous "peace" demonstrations throughout the West, including the largest one to date in U.S. history (New York City, 1982) -- and ultimately forced the Soviets to dismantle the missiles and begin their overall retreat.
Rarely has a president been so quickly and completely vindicated by history. The Berlin Wall came down 10 months after Reagan left office. His policies of unrelenting toughness won the Cold War and brought a new peace. That is because Reagan understood that the key to peace was never arms control. Security had nothing to do with the number of weapons; it had everything to do with the intention and power of those who possessed them.
Accordingly, Reagan put relentless pressure on the possessors of that power, the Soviet commissars, through his nuclear hard line, military buildup, Strategic Defense Initiative and the Reagan Doctrine of supporting anti-communist guerrillas everywhere (especially Nicaragua). Ultimately, that pressure brought about the collapse of the overextended Soviet empire. The result was the most profound peace the world had experienced in 60 years -- since the very beginning of the totalitarian era in the early 1930s.
This success is an understandable embarrassment to the critics who opposed his every policy. They supported the freeze, denounced the military buildup, ridiculed strategic defenses, opposed aid to the Nicaraguan anti-communists and derided Reagan for telling the truth about the Soviet empire.
So now they praise his sunny smile. Normally, people speak well of the recently deceased to honor the dictum of being kind to the dead. When Reagan's opponents speak well of him now, however, they are trying to be kind to themselves.