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.”