Along the Tracks

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Reagan remembered

As an early “Gen X’er,” I am one of those people who first knew Ronald Reagan as an actor. I was introduced to the man’s warmth, humor and that famous, infectious “Reagan smile” as a kid, sitting on the living room floor in front of the television watching him interact with a chimp in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” That role was later used by Reagan’s detractors as a derisive jest, yet the actor-president was never ashamed of that movie: It was buoyant, warm and carried a good message - just like Reagan, the politician.

Most young people really have little understanding of America circa 1980. Yet, in that election year, America was a nation in decline. The pain of Vietnam and the shame of Watergate still weighed heavily on the American psyche. America’s containment policy, heavily battered by the failure of Vietnam, had morphed into a combination of one-sided treaties and acceptance of communism’s advance as a historical imperative - exactly what the communists had always claimed.

The economy was in a muddy rut of inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment - the “misery index” was created as a journalistic standard of measurement. Capitalism, we were told, was to blame.

President Jimmy Carter, well-meaning by all accounts, had nevertheless overseen four years of nosedive. Carter’s messy press conferences, with shouting reporters and shoulder-shrugging answers, epitomized the chaotic world that had overtaken a weary and confused nation.

Then came the actor.

Few took Ronald Reagan seriously in the 1980 presidential campaign. Yet Reagan’s optimism and unabashed patriotism drew in popular support from places Republicans had long before written off to the Democrats: Labor, farmers, seniors and young voters all came out in droves.

In the national campaign, Reagan solidly trounced the incumbent Carter, but more than that, Reagan’s voters stuck with him right down the ticket, and suddenly, the Senate turned Republican. With the power base of a supportive electorate, Reagan implemented a program which just a year before no observer would have believed possible: tax cuts, an unprecedented defense buildup and a new attitude toward interfering, regulatory government as the problem, rather than the solution.

In two years, America had turned the corner on its malaise, with the economy back in growth, inflation nearly dead, the military regaining its confidence and America’s standing in the world unabashedly pro-freedom. America had turned sharply from the path of the “European model,” where socialistic government confiscated success and entrapped the poor with addictive, self-defeating programs. America had reconnected with its military, recognizing that they were, in fact, us. And perhaps most crucially, America had taken a stand on its principles, that the cause of freedom was noble and right, those who stood in the way of liberty were wrong - and those that stole liberty were evil.

What Reagan delivered was a shock - and just what America needed. His humor and compassion are now legend, but they were tools toward the higher purpose of his convictions. By the end of his second term, America was strong and growing, the Cold War was ending without bloodshed, millions more around the world were free.

As with all administrations, there were missteps and mistakes, but on the big issues of the day, Reagan was confidently correct, and his guidance brought America back to its position of leadership on the world stage. How many lives were saved in Europe and Asia thanks to Reagan’s firm, steady hand? How many Americans did not have to fight and die to overcome the turbulence of expansionistic communism in the late ‘80s and ‘90s?

The numbers can only be guessed. Yet as we say farewell to a great American patriot, we should all recognize how much we owe to his intelligence, conviction - and that infectious smile.

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