Reagan, Tapping Wellsprings of Our National Character, Rose To Rank With Washington, Lincoln, and FDR
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Ronald Reagan, the centenary of whose birth falls on tomorrow, had perhaps, of all presidents, the most astonishingly American of lives.
Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin and with only a couple of years of formal schooling, was an autodidact who rose to have one of the greatest law practices in the United States, helped found the Republican Party, split the Democrats in half in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, resisted an insurgency in which nearly 700,000 people died — and which he transformed in mid-course to a war also to emancipate the slaves (for both tactical and idealistic reasons depending on the constituency being addressed) — reunited the nation and was assassinated at the height of his power and success, aged 56.
He was always saddened rather than angry by the countless betrayals and disappointments inflicted on him. Though he never lost his sense of humor, he often was morose, afflicted by an unstable and difficult wife, and suffered the premature death of two children. On his centenary, in 1909, he was remembered by then-president Theodore Roosevelt as “quiet, patient, mighty Lincoln, who lived and suffered, and died for the people, and saved the Union by lending it his strength.” From his poor origins, Lincoln was a temperamental and moral giant, a Nietszchean superman of virtue, talent and eloquence, savior of the republic, emancipator of the slaves and ultimate secular martyr to the defects of the world.
Lincoln deserves to be an idol and probably ranks as the world’s most admired, as well as America’s greatest, statesman. But there isn’t much about him that is typical of America, except that it was common for people to be born in poor farmhouses in the Midwest (Kentucky in fact, despite the endless insinuations of Illinois), 200 years ago. His life was a riveting epic of heroism, stoicism, genius and tragedy.
Anyone who reaches that great office has an interesting life. But Ronald Reagan, though he was a great president and had remarkable human qualities, was a much more typical American man than Lincoln, with an unimpoverishably happy life and sublimely happy (second) marriage, and was not a learned, much less a self-taught professional. Nor was he a Grade B actor. In the incidentally insightful words of that insufferable poltroon Gore Vidal, “He was one of the great actors of world history who had the misfortune to play in a lot of Grade B movies.” His calm good humor after being shot in the chest was not acting.
Ronald Reagan was felicitous, the ultimate upwardly mobile American. He had only six jobs in a career of nearly 60 years: lifeguard in Tampico, Illinois; baseball announcer in Des Moines, Iowa, California-bound in the Great Depression; film actor, including six terms as head of the Screen Actors’ Guild; vice president of General Electric Corporation; governor of California; and president of the United States.
He stood in only four elections: He defeated Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (who had narrowly defeated Richard Nixon four years before), as governor in 1966 by over 1-million votes, defeated Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh for the same office four years later with a plurality increased by more than 500,000, defeated incumbent president Jimmy Carter in 1980 by nearly 8.5 million votes in 1980 and former vice-president Walter Mondale by over 15 million votes (carrying 49 states), in 1984.
After he got a good look at a 91% marginal income tax rate in his forties and became a conservative Republican, he never changed his political position. And over 20 years, America came to him. He was correct when he said, “The only welfare system we had that worked was a job”; and as president, he created 18-million new jobs, net, while the entire European Union (except for the UK) created 1-million, and those in the public sector. He simplified taxes and sharply cut the rates. Claims that his job creation was mainly of “hamburger flippers” and pizza delivery drivers (honorable and necessary occupations, incidentally) was debunked by the fact that America enjoyed the greatest productivity increases in 40 years.
He traded AWACS intelligence planes to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a lower oil price to deprive Russia of hard currency, ended Soviet industrial espionage by ensuring that they found and acted on plans for gas transmission that blew up a huge gas field in Siberia, worked with Pope John Paul II to destabilize Communist Poland and Sandinista Nicaragua and terrified the Kremlin with the prospect of a non-nuclear, entirely defensive, impenetrable anti-missile shield. The USSR was already spending half of its GDP on defense, compared to 6% in the United States, and the entire Soviet Union and international Communism consequently imploded, one of the greatest and most bloodless strategic victories in the history of the nation state.
The left grudgingly called him “a great communicator” and “the Teflon president.” He was a hypnotically eloquent speaker, certainly the greatest orator of U.S. presidents since Roosevelt. Despite aspersions cast on him by elitist Democrats, he hammered Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in debates, was an elegant and moving writer, and, along with FDR, he was the only U.S. president of the 20th century to move the ideological centre of the political spectrum.
Next to Lincoln, Washington and FDR, he was the greatest president in American history, and he got there by uniting in himself the genuine traditional wellsprings of the national character with the presentational genius of a Hollywood veteran who was “real tinsel.” He led the United States to a preeminence no country has had since the Roman Empire, and changed the world for the better; no statesman can aspire to more and very few there have been who achieved so much, and he did it by letting America be America.
Comparisons with his successors are invidious, but he will be remembered with fondness and gratitude by all who knew him and by scores of millions who admired him.
This dispatch first appeared in the National Post of Canada.