Today, February 6, marks the 107th Birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Though living he is not, the world he left behind bears his unmistakable fingerprint in a most extraordinary way. He largely consummated the modern Conservative Movement after some 40 years in the making; he left behind an economy boasting an additional 16.1 million jobs; and, as the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, eulogized, he “won the Cold War…without firing a shot…”. For these reasons, among many others, it is utterly safe to say that America–and the world–is a better place because Ronald Reagan was once a part of it.
Born in tiny Tampico, Illinois, and educated at the even tinier Eureka college, Reagan’s academic bona fides, typically speaking, did not exactly portend a life of statesmanship. But like so many other things, Reagan understood back then what conservatives take to be axiomatic today: namely, that the credentialism that characterizes the modern political world says little to nothing about a person’s intellect, knowledge, wisdom, or character. When Reagan was told that a potential cabinet member held a graduate degree from Harvard, Reagan replied, “Well, we won’t hold it against him.” Indeed, eschewing Harvard, Yale, and the like, Reagan was to follow more in the educational footsteps of the autodidactic Abraham Lincoln than the formally educated Woodrow Wilson.
Reagan went on to become a Hollywood actor, starring in King’s Row, Hellcats of the Navy, The Killers, and Knute Rockne, All American, among others. In light of his later life as a serious statesman, one might—understandably—be inclined to look upon his acting years as time regrettably misallocated. Reagan’s acting, however, was not so vastly unrelated to his future life as one might initially suppose. Unlike most politicians, untrained and unprepared for the highly significant theatrical aspects of politics, Reagan, by contrast, excelled in this arena. In fact, it was arguably Reagan’s time in Hollywood that permitted him to become “The Great Communicator,” as he came to be called. Indeed, when asked by ABC News anchor David Brinkley if his acting career contributed anything of use to his life as president, Reagan answered, “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you [could] do this job if you hadn’t been an actor.”
Like most everyone in show business, however, Reagan’s desirability as a movie star eventually declined. But while this may have been the end of one career, it was merely the beginning of another. Classic Reagan: He never lost his sense of optimism; for as he notes in his autobiography, An American Life, “I was raised to believe that God [had] a plan for everyone…My mother… told me that everything in life happened for a purpose. She said all things were part of God’s plan…” History would later vindicate his mother’s optimism, and her perspicacity was not lost on him, as he would go on to note in his autobiography: “My mother, as usual, was right.”
In 1954, Regan signed a contract with General Electric to become the host of a new television series, General Electric Theatre. He also toured the country by train (Reagan was afraid of flying) as GE’s “goodwill ambassador” to the public. It was on these train rides that Ronald Reagan the Democrat slowly metamorphosized into Ronald Reagan the Republican. He would immerse himself in what historian Steven F. Hayward has called the “early classics of the conservative cannon: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson,” etc. In addition, he would swallow and digest William F. Buckley Jr.’s magazine, National Review.
But Reagan did not complete his political journey from left to right without public notice–or public consequence. In 1964, he accepted a request to speak on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. In “The Speech,” as Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech is known to Reaganite conservatives, he catapulted himself out of obscurity into the limelight. So good, in fact, was Reagan’s speech, so moving, so compelling, that it later prompted several Republican donors to urge him to consider running for Governor of California.
While initially recalcitrant about entering the California gubernatorial race, he would eventually overcome his hesitancy. And in 1966, Reagan assumed the office of governor. After his first term in office in 1970, despite sharp increases in taxes, the Golden State was on the brink of financial bankruptcy due to the ever-increasing welfare rolls. With welfare beneficiaries jumping from 600,000 to 2.2 million in just a decade, at a cost of more than $2.5 billion annually, Reagan knew California was in trouble–or, as he put it, the state faced “fiscal and human disaster.” Nevertheless, he managed to pull California out of its nosedive. And by the end of Reagan’s second term in March 1974, the number of people taken off the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) rolls was greater than 850,000. Indeed, so successful was Reagan’s reversal of the Golden State’s impending financial disaster due to welfare expenditures, Richard Nixon was forced to abandon his own plan to nationalize welfare through the “Family Assistance Plan.”
After a successful, two-term occupation of the governor’s mansion in California, Reagan decided to try his hand at the presidency. While he did try, he did not succeed, failing to get his party’s presidential nomination in both 1968 and 1976. And it was after the ‘76 defeat that the political prognosticators pronounced that Reagan was finished. A Newsweek story about the assumed imminence of Reagan’s exit from political life, entitled “Into the Sunset,” was highly typical of press opinion at the time. Nevertheless, after that hard-fought, unsuccessful battle in ‘76 against Gerald Ford, Reagan quickly got back to work spreading the conservative gospel.
As Reagan scholar Craig Shirley points out in his book Rendezvous with Destiny, it was during the interregnum between the conventions of 1976 and 1980 that Reagan returned to writing his nationally syndicated newspaper column, which King Features distributed to hundreds of newspapers across the country. In addition, Reagan also began recording five-minute radio commentaries that were distributed to over 500 radio stations, reaching an audience of some 40 million people. With the reach of his twice-weekly column and voluminous radio broadcasts, Reagan was able to promulgate his ideas, opinions, and criticisms regularly. That is to say, though defeated at the Republican convention in Detroit for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, Reagan’s public platform was still quite significant. Not taking this platform for granted, Reagan used it assiduously in order to ensure that he would not soon be effaced from the public consciousness.
Though the Gipper decided to make one last run at the White House in 1980, many–including some in his inner circle–made a great hullabaloo over his age. Although the innuendo of senility was not quickly dispelled, Reagan worked indefatigably to discredit such innuendo by campaigning with a vigor, vitality, and dynamism that was simply hard to associate with a septuagenarian.
After a grueling Republican primary–the outcome of which was far from certain, as many today seem to misremember–Reagan, without the slightest hint of fear or fatigue, campaigned just as hard during the general election against Jimmy Carter and continued his march toward the Oval Office.
On November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan’s hard work paid off, and his long wait for victory was over.
In what some considered a miraculous outcome, Reagan defeated the incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide. Indeed, while many had discounted him as nothing more than “an aging, Hollywood, juvenile actor,” to use the description of the political pornographer Gore Vidal, 1980 was a demonstration to the country and the world that the Gipper had a lot more gas left in the tank. The Reagan Revolution–and the modern Conservative Movement, more generally–had, it seemed, reached a climax.
Although Reagan’s eight years in the Oval Office unquestionably faltered in some respects in terms of adherence to conservative principle, on the whole, the Reagan Administration was a conservative’s dream. Reagan created no major regulatory programs or federal agencies, he slowed down the rate of growth of the federal government to essentially zero, he beat back the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, he licked the “malaise” that had beset the country under Carter, restored dignity to the Office of the President, and brought the Soviet economy to its knees and won the Cold War.
Reagan’s success as a conservative in Washington, D.C., has continued to reverberate across all generations, creating a Republican Party and Conservative Movement that regard him as a hero and seek to emulate him in all ways. Indeed, even more broadly speaking, in the words of Claremont Review of Books Editor Charles R. Kessler, the policies and principles of Reagan “dominate the political landscape.” (Admittedly, however, this is less true in the post-Obama era.) It seems that all on the Right–and even some on the Left–would like to emulate the most successful conservative president since Calvin Coolidge as closely as possible.
But his success did not come easily. Despite Reagan’s oft-recited quip that “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”, Reagan worked extremely hard in all of his endeavors. He was a voracious, omnivorous reader, for one. He began reading books and newspapers at a very young age. As he grew older and more mature, he read books on philosophy, history, and technology, among other subjects. While in the White House, his nightly consumption of briefing books given to him by his staff became so voluminous that Nancy Reagan eventually had to intervene on his behalf.
Also surprising to many, Reagan wrote much of his own material, especially that which related to his famous radio addresses of the 1970s. He was ferocious with his pen, meticulously writing in his emendations to whatever his speechwriters had originally prepared. According to Steven Hayward, Reagan’s speeches display his “sharp mind” as regards not only “editing and making things simpler, but also inserting key points” that often times went against his political staff’s cautious wishes.
While Reagan’s mind and intellect were demonstrably sharp, the impression that many in the press and Establishment had of him as an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford infamously called him, was pervasive. While this impression was wildly absurd, it was artfully embraced by Reagan. Indeed, Reagan was shrewd and tactful; he understood very well how beneficial and empowering it was to be underestimated.
When journalists asked him what he was reading, he would often offer up the name of some unsophisticated, mind-numbing novel intended for teenagers–conspicuously failing to mention all the serious, thought-provoking, highbrow books he was reading (for instance, those about missile technology and Soviet history). Reagan had that trait which is so uncommon as to almost be truly unique: He was comfortable in his own skin–and he didn’t care what anyone, save for his family and the American people, thought of him.
Ronald Reagan impacted the course of history forever. How big was his impact? Well, in 1996, for instance, President Clinton–in response to pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress–was prompted to adopt the Reagan-Carleson welfare reforms, i.e., the reforms Reagan instituted while governor of California. Clinton also, after resistance, signed the Republican-led tax-relief-and-deficit reduction bill that, inter alia, reduced the top capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent. (Before Clinton, Reagan reduced the maximum capital gains rate to 20 percent.) So powerful and influential was Reagan’s conservative presidency on the country, Historian Richard Reeves–a longtime critic of Reagan–wrote of Bill Clinton in 1997: “Wittingly or not, the Democrat who ran as the agent of change gave up after a couple of years and joined the Reagan revolution.”
It must be noted, however, that despite the enormous success Ronald Reagan enjoyed, he was not a deity. He made mistakes. He was human–but he was an exceptional human being and a stalwart patriot who loved his country. As he notes in his autobiography,
I have always wondered at this American marvel, the great energy of the human soul that drives people to better themselves and improve the fortunes of their families and communities. Indeed, I know of no greater force on earth.
Indeed, it was only his love for the American people that perhaps surpassed his love for America itself. Again, from his autobiography:
[M]ost people have a lot in common: Every individual is unique, but we all want freedom and liberty, peace, love and security, a good home, and a chance to worship God in our own way; we all want the chance to get ahead and make our children’s lives better than our own.
This latter desire–the desire to achieve the “American Dream,” essentially–is still possible. And a possibility it still remains, in no small measure, thanks to the presidency and lifework of Ronald Wilson Reagan. It seems Reagan’s mother was indeed correct after all: Everything in life happens for a purpose. . . All things are a part of God’s plan.
—Ross Dubberly is the Editor in Chief of The Arch Conservative