This is surprisingly hard to write.
I am very much a product of the late 70s and early 80s. I became politically aware under the Carter administration…if for no other reason than the price of oil making Star Wars action figures more expensive, wiping out my meagre savings to collect them, my obsession from age 9-12 or so. My parents were and are Goldwater Republicans, which meant a conservatism that had individual liberty as a core component–and by consequence a fierce anti-communism.
Though he was clearly a decent and well-meaning man, Carter was no communicator, and he miscalculated in allowing his deep-seated Christian humility to be constantly on display. Instead of seeming genuine, he seemed weak, indecisive, and ineffectual in the face of an ever-increasing “Misery Index“. Carter avoided absolutes absolutely; he spoke with reams of statistics, caveats, and conditionals. Though I have great sympathy now, those qualities just don’t appeal to the 10-year-old mind. And they still aren’t a good tool to get your point across to a large and diverse audience.
Then along came Reagan. He is continually noted as a speaker, even though that quality might be less important to history than his other qualities. But if you ever heard him speak, it was that ability to choose just the right phrase without it seeming trite or pretentious that you immediately noticed. He had what I now recognize to be a fairly well-thought-out message that he boiled down to a few simple concepts: government had gotten too big; communism was a threat; and the American people did the right thing when given the chance.
Where Carter lectured, pleaded, and cajoled, Reagan inspired. I’m more politically sophisticated now, obviously, but Reagan is damn near the only politician who has ever inspired me, and I don’t think it’s simply because it’s easier to inspire a sixth-grader than an adult with a couple of degrees. He spoke in uplifting terms, pointing, ironically enough, Lenin-like at an expansive future of unlimited possibilities. It wasn’t that he whitewashed problems; far from it. His speeches spent a great deal of time talking about problems. He just made them seem like obstacles that would be overcome and you would want to work to overcome if you only gave yourself a chance.
I now look back with much more mixed feelings to what the Reagan administration, as opposed to the man himself, did. Moving the debate back to talking about the proper size and role of government, defining international communism as a threat and dealing with it, and cutting tax rates were unqualified goods. The spending and deficits were politically almost unavoidable, but regrettable nonetheless. Allowing more hard-core evangelicals to top spots and betraying his own principles with regard to Iran were unqualified failures.
But go back and read his speeches. Read his inaugural address, or better yet, listen to it. Watch it if you can. Throughout those speeches is a core concept that almost everyone on the Left and Right has lost since the Reagan years: individual liberty is an unalloyed good, a right, and it leads naturally to people achieving their highest potential. No committee of experts in a far-off capital charted the course for the the Web, E-mail, the Open Source movement, or even Web logs years in advance. All those things resulted from individuals having a vision of how to solve a problem and then doing it. Committees, experts, and other hangers-on came later and dealt with these technologies largely in a reactionary way. But only individuals creating, and other individuals adopting led to the Internet we have now.
For a president derided for his “simplicity” and “anti-intellectualism,” Reagan was both well-read and had a probably unconscious appreciation for complexity in the scientific sense: simple ideas with deep, complex, and profound consequences. It was his ability to capture those complexities, distill the essence to a few well-crafted phrases, communicate those ideas to a wide range of people, and then, in governing, have faith in them even when the long-term consequences looked far-off and unlikely, that made Reagan a great and inspiring leader.
At some other point it will be appropriate to consider how those traits contributed to the worst as well as the best of his time on our political landscape, but for now I want to remember the good things about a leader who actually inspired me and got me to think deeply about political ideas, even if they later led me away from my starting position. But it’s that inspiration of individual achievement that made Reagan Reagan. And when I think now about the totality of his influence, particularly remembering the America of 1980 and the America of 1989 and beyond, I can’t help but quote him: “All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”
Good night, Gipper. I do believe “there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
8 thoughts on “Ronald Wilson Reagan, RIP”
You may find this Slate article of interest:
Reagan is a liberal!
Seriously, if you want to cast me as a conservative because I agree with Reagan on the definition of freedom, well, call me a conservative. Reagan followed, however, from a tradition of liberal (qua classical liberal) thinking from Adam Smith through de Toqueville and Hayek…all books that he had read, it turns out. Responses to Salaten’s arguments are numerous and plentiful, and go back many, many years before Reagan.
The ironic thing is, that in 1980, it was much more difficult for most people to “have the ability” to use their rights than it was in 1989…so maybe Reagan really is a liberal.
For more on freedom versus freedom from want, see
for a view from someone whose parents starkly made that choice.
I’m not sure you and I read the same Slate article 🙂
It was not about “freedom versus freedom from want”. It was about Reagan’s assertion that the expansion of government necessarily and uniformly means the contraction of freedom.
Saletan’s point was that how you react to this assertion is a useful way to to distinguish whether you’re a conservative or a liberal. I think that’s a good point; since I’m a liberal, I reacted by thinking of several types of expanded government that have meant more freedom for me, like public police forces instead of vigilante mobs. Conservatives would likely not have such examples spring to mind.
Perhaps your comments illustrate Saletan’s point better than his article does 😉
Ronald Reagan, well known for his opposition to police forces. Yep. Sure a big anarchist there.
Government expansion necessarily has an opportunity cost. You can decide the benefit of a certain function (police forces) is better than the cost (police forces can and will be abused, unless you can name a place where no minority or poor person has ever been unfairly targeted). The point is that Saletan, in his attempt to paint GWB-style black and white on political thought in America, has missed that conservatives today (and many in Reagan’s time) simply did not agree. They agree on a fundamental point with liberals: abuse of a government function is because the right people aren’t directing it, not a fundamental problem of having the function in the first place.
So a conservative would agree with you that police forces are a good thing, after all, how else can we keep the darkies in the hood? The problem is that all these bleeding-heart liberals get in power and muck it up so that they go and burn down religious compounds in Waco.
What about the ability of Christians to use their rights to free speech if the government doesn’t subsidize their expression? What does the first amendment mean if they can’t blast propaganda at you over the public school PA?
A classical liberal, or now libertarian, insight is that the power, in order to be abused, has to exist. And there are alternate, less abusive ways to get things done (voluntary organizations). Not that they are free of problems, but simply limited in the extent of their harm due to the limitation of not having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force as government does.
So classical liberals agree that government is necessary, but is necessarily best when limited. Which is why I specifically put Reagan’s thought in the classical liberal tradition.
Freedom from want is the former liberal code-word for this concept, so I just translated since we were in 80s remembrance mode.
Is Saletan looking at Reagan in context? At times he is, but at times not. Certainly “Reagan’s Law” should be applied to the massive federal government of ~1970 on. Even most libertarians aren’t anarchists so much as minarchists. Saletan offers the strawman of police forces. I offer two responses:
A) Lotta conservatives are big on law-and-order, and Reagan was largely responsible for the expansion of narcotics enforcement to ‘war’ status. (Note that Reagan’s Law applies here, as well – how many searches struck down as uncostitutional by SCOTUS were related to the war on drugs?)
B) Lotta left-liberals are big decryers of police abuses of minorities. I don’t think that expanding government power to include torture would rank too high on most left-liberal agenda, either.
Am I a conservative here? http://virtual-vortex.muerte.net/tiki-view_blog_post.php?blogId=2&postId=45
Saletan is right that some government is necessary. Reagan is right that some government is the problem. To hold a one-size-fits-all view of government-as-bogeyman or government-as-panacea is a fool’s errand. But when you ask which side of the fence is more likely to say ‘there oughta be a law…’ I’m gonna say that’s an even split.
Sorry, Saletan didn’t bring up the police issue, that was in Jason’s post.
I’m not sure this country should ever forget Reagan for his inaction on the AIDS crisis. It is shameful and inhumane. He may have had an idea or two about classical liberalism, but having to see his name on the largest government building in DC after flying into the airport named after him there, is just TOO much! I did not shed a tear upon his demise.
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