Jewish World Review June 14, 2004 / 25 Sivan, 5764
Why Reagan meant so much to us
The death of Ronald Reagan has conjured an extraordinary national mood of sadness and nostalgia. Why? Surely it reflected the memory of his personal qualities, reminding us of the affection and respect he engendered, even from those who disagreed with him. We were all witnesses to his comfortable physical presence on TV, looking so much younger than his years, cocking his head with that endearing, lopsided grin, and his mysterious mix of geniality and authority. His presence was dignified but not pompous, his language self-deprecating but not self-doubting. This was a man plainly at ease with himself, who put Americans at their ease, as well.
In part, the good feeling for him took root because of its contrast to the anxiety that emanated from the Carter White House. It was a time of record inflation, an energy crisis, a hostage crisisand the notion that somehow we would simply have to get used to it all. People wondered if anybody could run the country. Far from inspiring America, President Carter bemoaned the malaise that had somehow settled on the nation.
Ronald Reagan didn't buy it, not for a minute. Instead, he pronounced that it was "morning in America," and we believed him. The Gipper restored American pride and confidence with his style and wit, and with a rare courage, revealed just two months into his presidency when he survived a would-be assassin's bullet. "They tried to kill our guy," was a friend's reaction.
But Ronald Reagan was everyone's guy. He was, quite simply, the right man at the right time, a commanding leader at a moment when history demanded nothing less. Whether celebrating our heroes or our history, or mourning the dead, Reagan always rose to the occasion, employing plain language that connected deeply with the American people. It wasn't showbiz. That simply wouldn't have worn well. Rather, Reagan's stirring words sprang from his natural confidence and optimism, grounded in a deep conviction, and the clarity and consistency that animated him throughout his life. Even when he was outside the mainstream of both parties, Reagan held fast to his beliefs, and they carried him to the pinnacle of American politics. In the process, he changed the political frame of reference for America and for much of the world.
One of Reagan's themes was a strong Americaand there was a force multiplier in the strength of his will. It was grounded in his conclusion that communism shouldn't be tolerated, or even simply contained. His rejection of its ideological and moral justification was manifested in his palpable contempt for the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. And he was right. It was evil, and it was an empire. It was also in retreat, and shortly after he left office the Berlin Wall was breached and the evil empire was no more.
Early in his first term, Reagan confronted a new Soviet missile threat to Europe. When Moscow refused to withdraw its SS-20s, Reagan installed medium-range Pershing missiles in Europe amid an outcry that he was provoking war. Not so. He was promoting peace. So, too, with his support for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Star Wars missile shield so derided by critics forced Moscow to recognize the obvious: It simply couldn't hope to meet the scientific and financial challenges from Washington. It was the beginning of the end.
Cool head. It was my personal good fortune to have worked with President Reagan in one of his early confrontations with the Soviet Union. U.S. News 's Moscow correspondent, Nick Daniloff, was seized by the KGB on Labor Day weekend in 1986. The next day, I flew to Moscow to attempt to negotiate his release. When I returned a week later, I met with Reagan and his senior staff and gained some perspective on how the president operated in a crisis. He demonstrated insight, strength, good judgment, and coolness under pressure. His detailed knowledge of what we were doing with the Soviet Union, and of the plight of the American hostages in Beirut, gave the lie to the glib criticisms that he had no head for detail. In the years since then, I have remained a great admirer of Ronald Reagan.
His record, however, was hardly immaculate. The Iran-contra scandal stained his presidency. Huge foreign and domestic debts bloomed. Still, his achievements were striking. It was at great political cost that he supported the high-interest policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to break the back of inflation. He was flexible in his tax cuts, reducing the initial excesses but doing enough to see a powerful economic expansion in the last years of his presidency.
Reagan's wit and charm, grace and style, dignity and fearlessness reawakened the sense of national unity in America and inspire respect to this day. When he left office, it was, as he promised, morning in America once again.
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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman