Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Lion at the Gate

On Principle, v12n2

June 2004

by Steven Hayward

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

—President Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate,
West Berlin, June 12, 1987

Most of his senior aides didn’t want him to say it. Indeed, they tried repeatedly to talk him out of it. You’ll embarrass your host, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. You’ll anger and provoke Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom you’ve just started making progress on arms control. You’ll whip up false hope among East Germans—for surely the Berlin Wall isn’t coming down any time soon. Besides, Germans have grown used to the Wall. The ultimate reason: You’ll look naïve and foolish, Mr. President.

“Virtually the entire foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government,” Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson recalled, tried to stop Ronald Reagan from saying “Tear down this wall,” including Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and the new National Security Adviser, General Colin Powell. “Some Reagan advisers,” the New York Times reported without naming names, “wanted an address with less polemics.” The State Department and the National Security Council persisted up to the last minute trying to derail it, including one meeting between Powell and White House communications director Tom Griscom that participants say was “tense and forceful.” Reagan had to intervene against his own advisers. Ken Duberstein, serving then as Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, has offered different accounts of how the conversation went, but the gist of it was like this—Reagan: “I’m the president, right?” Duberstein: “Yes, sir, Mr. President. We’re clear about that.” Reagan: “So I get to decide whether the line about tearing down the wall stays in?” Duberstein: “That’s right, sir. It’s your decision.” Reagan: “Then it stays in.”

But even this wasn’t the end of the effort to deflect the president from his purposes. While Air Force One was in flight to West Berlin, State and the NSC sent by fax one more speech draft to the plane without the Berlin Wall line. It went into the trash.

Today Reagan’s personalized call to “tear down this wall” is recognized as the most memorable line of his presidency. Some of the people who opposed the line and tried to stop it now claim to have written it and been for it all along. Even as tough and partisan a liberal as former Senator Robert Torricelli chose to include Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech in his collection Extraordinary Speeches of the Twentieth Century, saying “what makes it so admirable is that Ronald Reagan recognized that moment and the possibility of the challenge.”

Although several American presidents, most memorably John F. Kennedy, had visited the Wall and deplored its meaning, none had ever spoken directly in its shadow. While every American president since Kennedy had denounced the Wall and offered wistful hopes for the eventual reunification of the East and West Germany in freedom, none had ever called explicitly for the Wall to come down. As time passed, American rhetoric about the Wall dissipated. In the first months of his presidency in 1977, Jimmy Carter asked West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt what might be done to bring down the Wall. Schmidt thought Carter “naïve,” and dissuaded Carter from pursuing the idea. In a town hall-style public meeting in Berlin a year later, a retired German housewife asked Carter, “For how long, Mr. President, do you think we have to live with the Wall in Berlin?” Carter’s answer showed the resignation that realism had brought to Western leaders in the late 1970s: “I don’t know. I hope that it will be removed in the future, but I have no idea when that might be. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer, but that’s the truth.”

Reagan was not about to be deterred by any considerations of realism. In 1981 he had revived the practice—abandoned during the détente years of the 1970s—of issuing presidential proclamations deploring the Wall each August on the anniversary of its construction. He had actually issued his first call as president for the Wall to come down a year before the famous Brandenburg Gate speech, in an interview with West Germany’s largest daily newspaper, Bild. “I would like to see the wall come down today and I call upon those responsible to dismantle it,” Reagan said. Perhaps, Reagan suggested, we should have knocked over the Wall when it started going up in 1961. I doubt the Soviet Union would have wanted to go to war over it, he added. Reagan, the New York Times said its news story, “revived a long dormant debate over the Berlin Wall.” (Emphasis added.)


One of the hallmarks of Reagan’s presidency was reviving “long dormant” themes of the Cold War. Reagan’s blunt moral language was not new. He called the Soviets “liars and cheaters” in his first week in office, and touched off a firestorm when he called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world” in 1983—another line his foreign policy and political team tried to keep him from saying. Reagan’s direct and confrontational language was muted in the middle of his presidency, from roughly 1984 up to the Berlin Wall speech in 1987, for diplomatic reasons, so much so that many conservatives thought Reagan had gone soft.

With the Berlin Wall speech, the old Reagan was back, though he had never gone away to begin with. At the beginning of his 1987 speech Reagan told the outdoor crowd of 10,000 that “today, I make my second visit to your city.” Reagan meant his second visit as president; it was in fact Reagan’s third visit to Berlin and the Wall. He was referring to a brief stop in Berlin in 1982 after his first presidential trip to Europe. Reagan remarked upon his arrival in West Berlin that he felt like throwing a bottle over the Wall with a note asking, “Why is that Wall there? Why are they so afraid of freedom on this side of the Wall?” Reagan answered his own question: “Well, the truth is they’re scared to death of it because they know that freedom is catching, and they don’t dare let their people have a taste of it.”

Edmund Morris wrote that this quick 1982 trip afforded Reagan “his first view of Communism.” In fact, Reagan’s first view of Communism (if, that is, one excludes his first-hand experience with Communist union organizers in Hollywood in the 1940s, when he carried a gun because of threats to his life) came during a trip he made to Berlin as a private citizen in November 1978. During that trip Reagan made a 45-minute foray through “Checkpoint Charlie” to East Berlin, where, his traveling companions Martin Anderson and Peter Hannaford recall, Reagan was shaken and angered by the spectacle of armed soldiers bullying people on the streets who were merely going about their daily business. The East German secret police, the Stasi, tailed Reagan’s party during their brief visit to East Berlin, and filed an eight-page report. The Stasi report noted that Reagan’s trip came off “without incident.” But there were two “incidents” that stuck in Reagan’s mind. As Reagan and his entourage were leaving the department store, two East German soldiers armed with automatic rifles stopped a man coming from the store with two small sacks of goods, demanding his internal passport.

The second incident occurred the day before. While lunching high up in an office tower overlooking the Wall from the West Berlin side, Reagan’s hosts recalled a recent episode in which East German border guards shot a man attempting to escape over the Wall, and left his body visible for several days as an object lesson. The total number of people killed attempting to escape over the Wall during its 28 years is unknown. There were plaques or crosses memorializing the deaths of 77 people who attempted the crossing, but other estimates place the number as high as 200. The last fatality occurred nine months before the Wall came down in 1989. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more were caught before they could even try. (Among other methods of catching potential escapees, East German secret police used to watch for unusually large bank withdrawals as an indicator that someone was about to flee.) Another had been killed only three weeks before Reagan’s speech in 1987.

Reagan’s face-to-face encounter with the Wall in 1978 was the moment, Hannaford recalls, when Reagan became visibly angry, and resolved that “we must free these people.” Edmund Morris described Reagan in the Berlin Wall speech as “trying to look infuriated, but succeeding only in an expression of mild petulance.” Perhaps Morris was merely following the conventional wisdom in thinking Reagan was a bad actor; there is no doubt that the Wall deeply offended Reagan as the visible symbol of the thing he most hated, as can be seen from a closer look at the complete exegesis of the speech.

Reagan’s “tear down this wall” remark was not a one-time theme or speechwriter’s gimmick designed to elicit cheap and easy applause. Over the years the Wall had come to be thought of as the centerpiece of “the German question,” that is, a factor in the potential reunification of East and West Germany. Partly this was done in the spirit of détente, as a way of obscuring the unpleasant political implications of a Wall built to keep people in instead of out. Reagan threw these niceties to the side and reconnected the Wall to the larger question of totalitarian governance. As long as the Wall stands, Reagan argued, freedom is not safe anywhere in the world:

[The Wall is] an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the Wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. President von Weizsacker has said: “The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed.” Today I say: As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a Wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. (Emphasis added.)

Reagan’s call for the Wall to come down didn’t end on that June day in Berlin. He repeated the phrase in a televised speech to the nation upon his return from Europe three days later, and then again the very next day at a luncheon with Republican Senators. “If Mr. Gorbachev’s actions match his words then—I said it there: Tear down the wall! Open the gate!” A month later at a Captive Nations conference Reagan upped the ante: “I challenged [Gorbachev] to tear down the Berlin Wall and to open the Brandenburg Gate. I renew that challenge today and expand it to include opening up those countries that are now under the domination of the Soviet Union or its Leninist protégés, from the Baltic States through Bulgaria, from Vietnam to Ethiopia.”

Over the next year and a half before Reagan left office, he repeated his call to tear down the Wall another 14 times: four times in his Saturday radio addresses, three times in special radio broadcasts to Europe, five times in speeches to U.S. audiences, and twice during interviews with foreign journalists. The Soviets did not take it well. In the laughable doublespeak of Soviet and East German propaganda, the Wall was referred to as an “anti-fascist protective structure,” so they accused Reagan of “anti-socialist rhetoric” (the only accurate part of their complaint) and of wanting to “instigate a new wall of mistrust.” The official Soviet news agency Tass accused Reagan of advocating terrorism. Yet Reagan’s public stand had immediate practical effects. While East Germany took steps in the months after Reagan’s visit to reinforce the Wall, U.S. intelligence started picking up cable traffic from Moscow to East Germany in which Moscow suggested the East Germans ease restrictions on passage through the Wall.

Actors are noted for taking cues; former actor Reagan gave them. The State Department took the cue, and within a short time senior State Department officials were treating Reagan’s call as policy during diplomatic missions in Europe. Reagan’s successor President George H.W. Bush continued the theme. In a June 1989 speech in Mainz, West Germany, Bush called the wall “a monument to the failure of communism” and said “it must come down.” Two weeks later Gorbachev said publicly for the first time that perhaps the Wall might come down: “Nothing is eternal in the world.” The Wall would come down in five months.

Maybe Gorbachev knew by this late hour that the game was up, but Gorbachev’s public admission of June 1989 was in sharp contrast with Soviet reaction to Reagan’s initial call for the Wall’s demise. No one except possibly Reagan himself thought that his clarion call in 1987 would mark the beginning of the end for the Berlin Wall, which was itself the keystone of the Iron Curtain. If the Berlin Wall came down, Communism would come with it. A few years before the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg offered what would become a fitting epitaph for Communist tyranny: “If the whole world were to be covered with asphalt, one day a crack would appear in that asphalt; and in that crack, grass would grow.” The crack in the Wall in 1989 proved to be the fatal fissure.

Reagan had predicted in 1982 that it would be Communism, not western democracy, that would end up “on the ash heap of history”—a magnificent bit of rhetorical larceny, this; he turned the dialectic language of Marxism on its head. Others had predicted on various grounds that the Soviet empire was facing an imminent crisis. Nick Eberstadt observed in the New York Review of Books in 1981 that the rapidly declining health of Soviet citizens meant that the Soviet Union was slipping from the ranks of modern industrialized nations, and for similar reasons Pat Moynihan said in 1980 that the defining event of the decade might be the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But Moynihan had always been prone to hyperbolic predictions; almost no one thought, despite potential crises besetting the regime, that its collapse might be imminent. Most liberals, including several of the most prominent leading economists, political scientists, and Kremlinologists, maintained that the Soviet Union was a robust and viable nation right up to the very end, and their public affirmations of Soviet strength make for embarrassing reading today. Whatever optimism there was that the Cold War might end with the collapse of the Soviet Union was abstract and far-off. Jack Matlock, Reagan’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union (Matlock served from 1987 to 1991), wrote that when Russian journalists asked whether he thought the Soviet Union would ever experience such changes, Matlock would reply: “Yes, of course.” After the surprise registered on the face of his questioners, he would add: “And I hoped my grandson would live to see them.”

There is lively debate about whether Reagan himself thought the Soviet Union would collapse so quickly if pressed. His critics think he was more lucky than prescient; his view that the Soviet Union could be “transcended” (as he put it in an early presidential speech) was more a matter of narrow ideology than insight, though it is never explained why Reagan, almost alone among conservatives, thought this. Other observers argue that the credit owes to Mikhail Gorbachev. This is more than a bit precious: Whatever Gorbachev’s qualities and actions, it was surely never part of his intention to preside over the demise of the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party. Gorbachev himself offers the ultimate refutation of this view, telling the History Channel in 2002 that “I am not sure what happened would have happened had he [Reagan] not been there.”

This is an argument without end, and it misses the most important point: Reagan had the intellectual and political will to say it could be done, the courage to try to make it happen, and the fortitude to stick it out when the going was rough. Foreign policy was not the only heterodox aspect of his presidency where his solitary resolve was decisive. Much the same story can be told of his equally controversial economic policy. And so we must consider the case for Reagan’s greatness, in the classical sense of the term.

Friends and critics alike have drained tankers of ink trying to decipher Reagan’s unusual habits of mind. His imagination and penchant for analysis-by-anecdote are usually deployed for the purpose of denigrating his intelligence, which conveniently overlooks that analysis-by-anecdote is the method of Plato’s dialogues. Modern social science tries to reduce thinking either to an orderly, replicable process of formal logic and quantitative models, or to the context of a person’s life. Insight doesn’t work this way. Insight, the philosopher Bernard Lonergan notes in his magisterial study of the subject, is reached “not by learning rules, not by following precepts, not by studying any methodology… [Insight] is a function not of outer circumstances but of inner condition, pivots between the concrete and the abstract, and passes into the habitual texture of one’s mind.” Insight is discovery, not deduction; it shares the same element of genius that creates great new art. “Were there rules for discovery,” Lonergan adds, “then discoveries would be mere conclusions. Were there precepts for genius, then men of genius would be hacks.”

Certainly there is insight at work in Reagan that was missing from other leading anti-Communist figures of his time. One other modern statesman predicted the decline of the Soviet empire before the century’s end—Winston Churchill. In 1953, when Churchill was prime minister for the second time and during which he hoped to broker a permanent settlement to the Cold War with Stalin, he told a young aide that if he lived his normal span of life he would surely see Eastern Europe free from Communism. As Churchill contemplated at the end of World War II the division of Europe that would necessarily come with Soviet occupation of the East, he remarked to Charles De Gaulle that while the Soviets were a hungry wolf now, “after the meal comes the digestion period.” The Soviet Union, Churchill thought, would not be able to digest the peoples of Eastern Europe. Sure enough, every few years, like a dyspeptic belch, part of Eastern Europe would flare up and require to be put down forcibly—Hungary in 1956; Czechoslovakia in 1968; Poland in 1981.

Certainly Churchill had a wider intellectual range than Reagan (a colleague once described Churchill’s powers of insight as “a zig-zag streak of lightning in the brain”), yet there are many similarities between them. Reagan liked to quote Churchill; he made a point of citing Churchill in his first Inaugural Address (“To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy”). So have dozens of other American politicians over the years. Yet there are a number of affinities between Reagan and Churchill that go beyond borrowing a memorable quotation. As we can see now from Reagan’s own handwritten editing of speeches and other documents, Reagan shared Churchill’s flair for fine-tuning the English language, reaching for the right word, and achieving an economy of expression. Both expressed a sense of destiny. Reagan used to say that he thought the presidency sought the man, which might be depreciated as false modesty. But after he survived the assassin’s bullet in 1981, few questioned Reagan’s sincerity when he said that he thought God had spared his life for a purpose—the purpose of ending the Cold War. After Churchill became prime minister in 1940 he told his doctor: “This cannot be an accident. It must be design. I was kept for this job.”

Both men switched parties (twice in Churchill’s case), though not their principles. Some men change their principles for the sake of their party, Churchill said, while others change their party for the sake of their principles. Churchill left the Conservative Party for the Liberal Party when the Conservatives embraced trade protectionism, and rejoined it when the Liberals decided to throw in their lot with the Socialists after World War I; in each case Churchill thought his party was betraying a core principle. This was how Reagan understood his own experience. In his standard stump speech in 1984, Reagan explained: “I was a Democrat most of my adult life. I didn’t leave my party and we’re not suggesting you leave yours. I am telling you that what I felt was that the leadership of the Democratic Party had left me and millions of patriotic Democrats in this country who believed in freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

Both Reagan and Churchill favored personal diplomacy, and held great confidence in their ability to deal face-to-face with their adversaries, through “individual sentiment and human affection,” as Churchill put it. Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles thought Churchill foolish to think a lasting settlement to the Cold War could be brokered through a summit with Stalin—a judgment more and more historians are coming to think was wrong. Dinesh D’Souza recounts Reagan telling a dinner party Claire Booth Luce hosted in 1985, before the first of his four summits with Gorbachev, that “I only wish I could get in a helicopter with Gorbachev and fly over the United States… If I can just get him to think about the difference between our two systems, I think we could see big changes in the Soviet Union.” His dinner companions thought him naïve and frivolous.

The criticisms of their thinking are remarkably alike. Churchill, critics said, was a romantic refugee from the past, given to heroic imagery that was out of step with modern realities, reckless, and not to be trusted with supreme office. The same was said of the “cowboy” Reagan. Yet the unconventional imagination that led Reagan to embrace an expansive conception of strategic missile defense was much the same variety of imagination that led Churchill to champion all kinds of seemingly outlandish and impractical innovations, some of which were later recognized to be breakthroughs, such as the tank in World War I, or ingenious in their simplicity, such as throwing strips of metallic foil from bombers to confuse radar in World War II.

Critics, and even some friends, regarded Churchill and Reagan as simplistic Cold Warriors, though in both cases this judgment dissolves under serious scrutiny. While many liberals thought (and many conservatives feared) the Soviet Union or some benign variation of its system was the wave of the future, Churchill and Reagan both thought Soviet Communism was doomed for metaphysical reasons, though neither of them would put it in that kind of precious intellectual way. Churchill’s thumbnail diagnosis of Communism, given 20 years before the onset of the Cold War, sounds like something Reagan could have written for one of his radio broadcasts:

There is not one single social or economic principle or concept in the philosophy of the Russian Bolshevik which has not been realized, carried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a million years ago by the White Ant. But human nature is more intractable than ant-nature. The explosive variations of its phenomena disturb the smooth working out of the laws and forces which have subjugated the White Ant. It is at once the safeguard and glory of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to drive. So the Bolsheviks, having attempted by tyranny and by terror to establish the most complete form of mass life and collectivism on which history bears record, have not only lost the distinction of individuals, but have not even made the nationalization of life and industry pay. We have not much to learn from them, except what to avoid.

There are other striking similarities between the way Reagan and Churchill understood modern geopolitical conditions. In his much neglected 1967 TV debate with Robert F. Kennedy, Reagan remarked on the significance of the fact that the U.S. hadn’t used its nuclear monopoly for conquest immediately after World War II: “Can you honestly say that had the Soviet Union been in a comparable position with that bomb, or today’s Red Chinese, that the world would not today have been conquered with that force?” Churchill had said this in 1948: “What do you suppose would be the position this afternoon had it been Communist Russia instead of free enterprise America which had created the atomic weapon? Instead of being a somber guarantee of peace it would have become an irresistible method of human enslavement.”


Lincoln wrote that all nations have a central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The same can be said of great statesmen. Churchill’s central insight might be said to be that the distinction between liberty and tyranny is real and substantial. This may seem trivial or obvious, until we stop to realize that modern “value-free” social science has gone very far in effacing the moral distinctions between different kinds of “regimes” (as political scientists say). This has a long pedigree: Thomas Hobbes wrote in The Leviathan that tyranny is merely kingship “misliked,” and one will scour modern political science textbooks in vain to find the Soviet Union described as a “tyranny,” which is one of the oldest categories of rule known to political thought.

If the distinction between liberty and tyranny is real and substantial, it follows that compromise with tyrannical evil is not possible. Most everyone agrees with this, which is why the desire for accommodation begins by denying or obfuscating evil and tyranny. This instinct for evasion lay behind the furious reaction against Churchill’s anti-Nazi speeches of the 1930s, and against Reagan’s “evil empire” speech of 1983. Churchill warned of the nature of Nazism starting as early as 1930, three years before Hitler came to office, and as his warnings increased along with the growing menace, he was met mostly with antagonism from his own party chiefly because he laid out the problem with a clarity and requirement for choice and action that most hoped to avoid through wishful thinking. At root Churchill took seriously that Hitler meant what he had written in Mein Kampf, a book few Britons had bothered to read and would not have taken seriously if they had. Likewise Reagan took seriously the resolve of Lenin and his successors, quoting often Lenin’s statement that “It is inconceivable that the Soviet Republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialistic states. Ultimately, one or the other must conquer.” Churchill warned that weakness (“appeasement”) would lead to war, especially after the Munich agreement. He was attacked as a menace and a warmonger. Reagan held a similar view, warning as early as 1961 that “There can only be one end to the war we are in. It won’t go away if we simply try to outwait it. Wars end in victory or defeat.” Even Cold Wars. Which is why Reagan said, before becoming president, that his idea of how the Cold War should end was simple: “We win, they lose.” Liberals feared Reagan would start World War III.

It is precisely on this point one finds the most substantive similarity between Reagan and Churchill. Churchill remarked to Franklin Roosevelt during World War II that future historians could justly refer to it as “the unnecessary war,” as it would have been so easy to prevent with the right combination of resolve and rearmament, as Churchill had urged to no avail in the 1930s. Reagan took to heart the lesson of Churchill’s unheeded warnings and the tragedy of an “unnecessary war,” and was in full harmony with Churchill about the paradox that war is best prevented by preparing for it. This outlook represents an explicit rejection of a central tenet of modern liberalism, the Kantian morality of intentionality over results. In the post-Kantian moral horizon, anyone who intends peace must negotiate rather than build weapons; in fact, building weapons while intending peace is not simply mistaken and irrational, but immoral. One of the most frequent complaints about Reagan’s arms build up was not that it might not work, but that it was immoral.

Reagan’s central idea was a variation of Churchill’s, and can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, both in its vicious forms such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy. In his after-dinner speaking days in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Reagan liked to quote Nikita Khrushchev: “We can’t expect the American people to jump from capitalism to communism, but we can assist their elected leaders in giving them small doses of socialism, until they awaken one day to find that they have communism.” For Reagan this was only a restatement of a James Madison remark Reagan quoted side-by-side with Khrushchev to illustrate the unity of foreign and domestic threats to liberty: “I believe,” Madison told the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention in 1988, “there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

This similarity also extended to management philosophy (though less so to management practice). Churchill wrote that “Those who are charged with the direction of supreme affairs must sit on the mountain tops of control; they must never descend into the valleys of direct physical and personal action.” This was a noble lie in Churchill’s case, as he was a notorious meddler and hound for details from subordinates far down the line. Yet it is a good rule for the modern American presidency, which sits top a government so expansive that no one can realistically be expected to command it in detail. Reagan wrote in his autobiography: “I don’t believe a chief executive should supervise every detail of what goes on in his organization. The chief executive should set broad policy goals and ground rules, tell people what he or she wants them to do, then let them do it; he should make himself (or herself) available, so that the members of his team can come to him if there is a problem.” Reagan was much ridiculed as governor for his format of conducting executive business through one-page memos, but Churchill often imposed the same requirement on his subordinates. While on the subject of management, one might add that like Churchill, Reagan ignored the contrary advice of his most senior advisers on those questions most dear to his heart and mind.


For all these similarities there are several important differences between Reagan and Churchill that are also helpful in understanding Reagan. Churchill spent a lifetime in politics (though it should be noted that Churchill was fascinated with the cinema, visited Hollywood film studios, and flirted with writing screenplays), having served in nearly every senior cabinet office by the time he became prime minister in 1940. Reagan was a relative novice by comparison, though, as will be argued in the first chapter, was better prepared to be president than is commonly thought. The most sharp contrast between Reagan and Churchill is that the latter was prone to fits of deep depression—Churchill called it his “black dog”—while Reagan was a congenitally optimistic and cheerful person, nearly incapable of being depressed. As George Will put it, Reagan had “a talent for happiness.” Churchill was an extrovert and egotist: recall his famous dinner party quip to Violet Asquith in 1907 that “we are all worms—but I do believe that I am a glow worm.” As biographer Roy Jenkins put it, “Churchill’s life was singularly lacking in inhibition or concealment.” Reagan was a very private person out of a combination of shyness and modesty—two highly anomalous traits in a successful political figure. His future wife Nancy Davis noted when she met him in 1949 that “he didn’t talk about himself; he didn’t talk about his movies. He talked about a lot of things, but not about ’my next picture, my last picture… ’” Churchill hosted an endless parade of illustrious guests for weekends at Chartwell, his country home. Reagan, by contrast, seldom had overnight guests at his California ranch, even though it was outfitted with a guesthouse. (On the other hand, Reagan would often wander up to the Secret Service staff barracks at the ranch, tucked uphill behind a tree line, to watch Sunday football games on TV with off-duty agents. Even here, his modesty exhibited itself as he would ask the agents, “Would you mind if I joined you?”) During the long years of campaigning to reach the White House, many of his top aides thought it odd or standoffish that Reagan seldom invited them into his home for a drink or casual conversation at the end of a hard day.

This unconventional shyness and modesty, combined with Reagan’s fierce inner convictions, caused the political class that is more accustomed to Churchill-style extroversion to see Reagan as an impenetrable, remote, or detached figure. PBS’s Paul Duke said that “It’s just impossible to get beyond the outer edges, to get him to be reflective or philosophical,” while columnist Georgie Anne Geyer complained that “Psychologically, I think he shuts out… Reagan doesn’t even begin to understand the forces at work in the world.” To some extent this criticism was an attempt to craft an objective-appearing veneer to cloak the substantive disagreements journalists had with Reagan’s politics. A sophisticated person, it was tacitly suggested, could never hold such retrograde political views. Then, too, there is the omnipresent desire of our political elites for the president to be a philosopher-king—or at least an imitation of a renaissance man—in the mold of Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. This is not to be much expected in modern presidents by the nature of politics today, though a few—John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in particular—have tried to fake it. Less certain is whether it is desirable nowadays. The formidable intelligence of Bill Clinton was regarded as one of his weaknesses; he could, aides said, argue five sides of a three-sided issue late into the night.

Rather than faking intellect, Reagan would apologize for his public brushes with philosophy or speculation, which is a forgotten trait of the pre-World War II generation. Reagan began a 1978 radio broadcast (one his original compositions for which his handwritten manuscript survived): “I’m afraid you’re in for a little philosophizing if you don’t mind” (emphasis added). Nor was he introspective. In a 1953 letter to Nancy during some down time during a film shoot in New York city, Reagan wrote: “Eight million people in his pigeon crap encrusted metropolis and suddenly I realized I was alone with my thoughts and they smelled sulphurous.”

Instead of philosophy or self-absorbed introspection, Reagan had imagination, which he put to both therapeutic and practical uses. Immediately after writing Nancy that he found his solitary thoughts “sulphurous,” he went on to describe an imaginary dinner the two of them might have shared at “21,” complete with the entrée and wine selection, dinner table dialogue, and detailed descriptions of the people sitting at nearby tables. (His life-long love letters to Nancy offer another parallel to Churchill; both displayed a gushy romantic sentimentality of nearly adolescent simplicity.) Reagan’s vivid imagination was the source of much of the criticism that he confused fantasy with reality. But it was also the source of much of his strength. It was Reagan’s capacious imagination that led him to embrace missile defense, just as Churchill’s imagination led him to champion a variety of military innovations. Then there was his fascination with “little green men,” as Colin Powell called it. Reagan had been a science fiction fan during his acting career; the alter ego of Churchill’s lone novel, Savrola, is diverted from politics by astronomy, “becoming each moment more under the power of the spell that star-gazing exercises on curious, inquiring humanity.” When Reagan met Gorbachev for the first time in 1985, he attempted to disarm Gorbachev (so to speak) by saying that the differences between the U.S. and Soviet Union would instantly dissolve if the world faced invasion from aliens. It was a favorite theme that Reagan’s aides worked to keep out of his public comments, but Reagan had his own mind. At the end of a speech to a high school audience shortly after the 1985 Geneva Summit, Reagan ad-libbed the theme (it is easy to tell from the fractured syntax that Reagan was departing from his written text):

I couldn’t help but—one point during out discussions privately with General Secretary Gorbachev—when you stop to think that we’re all God’s children, wherever we may live in the world I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together. Well, I don’t suppose we can wait for some alien race to come down and threaten us, but I think that between us we can bring about that realization.

Gorbachev had watched some old Reagan movies, and no doubt had read through the Soviet intelligence assessments of Reagan that included prominently the fact that Reagan read his daily horoscope, in preparation for his first face-to-face meeting, but was unprepared for this. Lou Cannon wryly notes that Gorbachev “did not have at his fingertips the Marxist-Leninist position on the propriety of cooperating with the imperialists against an interplanetary invasion,” and promptly changed the subject.

Beyond the overt similarities and differences between Reagan and Churchill that can be described, there rests the deeper question of human greatness, and whether Reagan measures up to the same standard as a Churchill or a Lincoln. Despite Reagan’s generally improving reputation since leaving office, this comparison will strike many as a stretch. This tells us more about how political life at the highest level is thought about today than it does about Reagan—or Churchill. Churchill’s most popular biographer, William Manchester, employed as a hortatory theme the viewpoint that Churchill was “the last lion”—the last man of superlative virtue and courage, whose supreme greatness shall never be seen again on the human stage. Manchester attributes Churchill’s greatness precisely to the extent that Churchill was a Victorian anachronism in 1940, just as some of Reagan’s own senior staff and public admirers see him as an American anachronism.

Here we must suggest that for all of Manchester’s fulsome admiration for Churchill and magnificence in describing his life, his premise is wrong. Roy Jenkins, Churchill’s most recent biographer, says that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing.” “Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.” And historian John Lukacs observes: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past. He was not The Last Lion. He was something else.” The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from being a Victorian man, but from being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated in Aristotle and other classical authors. The tides of history and especially the scale of modern life are thought to have made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington. This is a powerful current of thought in our time, known in intellectual circles as “historicism.”

Churchill himself nearly succumbed to it. In the late 1920s he wrote: “I have no hesitation in ranging myself with those who view the past history of the world mainly as the tale of exceptional human beings, whose thoughts, actions, qualities, triumphs, weaknesses and crimes have dominated the fortunes of the race. But we may now ask ourselves whether powerful changes are not coming to pass, are not already in progress or indeed far advanced. Is not mankind already escaping from the control of individuals? Are not our affairs increasingly being settled by mass processes?” Churchill, whose career was failing when he wrote this, was pessimistic about this question, in a way Reagan could never be. Formal philosophic controversies did not divert Reagan, though he indirectly reflected on a central aspect of this issue. Few modern terms bothered Reagan more than “the masses.” That individuals lose their individuality and become an undifferentiated “mass” is an obvious implication of the historicist view that humans no longer control their destiny by reason or through their own chosen purposes, and it is a philosophical cornerstone for the idea of ever-expanding administrative government. “I for one find it disturbing,” Reagan said in his famous 1964 TV speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, “when a representative refers to the free men and women of this country as ’the masses.’” He returned to this theme repeatedly over the years, for example, remarking in a 1978 radio address about the variety of citizens he met in his travels: “Some of our social planners refer to them as ’the masses’ which only proves that they don’t know them… They are not ’the masses,’ or as the elitists would have it—’the common man.’ They are very uncommon.”

Of course all of us are powerfully affected by our environment, yet the case of Churchill and Reagan offers powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history. Churchill and Reagan beg the question: both had numerous capable contemporaries from similar environments—why were Churchill and Reagan virtually alone among them in their particular insights and resolves? The answer must be that they transcended their environments as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will. The political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote of Churchill: “A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalophysis [the great-souled man] exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C.” Likewise Reagan should be considered another lion in the ancient sense—”the lion at the gate,” in this case, the Brandenburg Gate.

Reagan’s leonine qualities are the more to be appreciated because the crisis he faced was more diffuse. The crisis confronting Churchill in 1940 was obvious: the very survival of Britain as a free nation was in doubt. The twin crises of a failing economy and the Soviet threat that Reagan confronted in 1980 were not as immediate and severe as the crisis facing Churchill, but the underlying problem Reagan faced can be said to have been more intractable. The presidency, it was said, was an office inadequate for modern times. By implication, the Constitution was obsolete. This represented a startling turnaround in the space of less than a decade. At the time of Richard Nixon’s resignation at the flood tide of Watergate, the prevailing sentiment, exemplified in Arthur Schlesinger’s best-selling book, was that we had most to fear from an imperial presidency. Four years of Jimmy Carter’s ineffectual flailing led political elites to the opposite view, that the presidency, or the federal government in general, wasn’t nearly imperial enough. (George Will observed that elite complaints about the power of the presidency seemed to wax and wane depending on whether a Republican occupied the office.)

The popular historian Barbara Tuchman expressed the thinking of the intellectual elite: “The job of President is too difficult for any single person because of the complexity of the problems and the size of government. Maybe some form of plural executive is needed, such as they have in Switzerland.” U.S. News and World Report wondered: “Perhaps the burdens have become so great that, over time, no President will be judged adequate in the eyes of most voters.” Newsweek offered an echo of U.S. News: “The Presidency has in some measure defeated the last five men who have held it—and has persuaded some of the people who served them that it is in danger of becoming a game nobody can win… the job as now constituted is or is becoming impossible, no matter who holds it.” Robert Wright and Fred Greenstein wrote that “Recent history offers little cause for optimism about Ronald Reagan’s chances of governing the American people to their satisfaction.” Political scientist Theodore Lowi concurred: “The presidency has become an impossible job… because the presidency has become too big, even for the likes of FDR.” Everett Carll Ladd wrote in Fortune magazine that “The experience of recent years strongly suggests that personal ability and character, while vitally important, are insufficient to assure success to a contemporary presidency. For the institutional setting quite simply has become adverse. A kind of ’vicious circle’ of declining performance has been initiated.” The big question, for Ladd, was: “Can anybody do it?” Surveying the field of candidates who wanted to succeed Jimmy Carter, Ladd thought not, and worried about the implications: “The consequences of yet one more failure in this unique office would impose appalling stress on the whole political system.” Like Tuchman, Ladd thought the office was no longer equal to the times. “The institutional resources available to the President, relative to what he is expected to do, remain seriously deficient.”

This was more than idle parlor talk. Congress considered a resolution to form a Commission on More Effective Government that would be charged with making “a comprehensive review of our system of government.” President Carter’s White House counsel Lloyd Cutler caused a stir with a widely-noted article in the Fall 1980 issue of Foreign Affairs calling for extensive constitutional reforms to make the presidency more powerful, including giving the president the power to dissolve Congress and call for new elections as prime ministers can do in most parliamentary governments. “We’re going to be having this same conversation about Ronald Reagan in two years’ time, or maybe one,” Cutler said after Carter’s rejection at the polls. President Carter embraced the view of the feebleness of the presidency in his farewell address to the nation a week before leaving office in 1981, noting that the presidency is “at once the most powerful office in the world and the most severely constrained by law and custom… Today we are asking our political system to do things of which the Founding Fathers never dreamed. The government they designed for a few hundred thousand people now serves a nation of almost 230 million.” Translation: Don’t blame me—I was hamstrung by this impotent office.

For the chorus of intellectuals and political elites who thought wholesale reform of the presidency and the Constitution was necessary, Reagan seemed the least likely person to reverse the perceived decay of the presidency, for the simple reason that most reform ideas required making the federal government more powerful, while Reagan called for making the federal government smaller and less powerful. Reagan’s electoral success merely confirmed the theme that our entire political system had slipped off the rails. Tuchman huffed that “The methods we use today in presidential elections—image making, paid political advertisements and the like—lead to the wrong people winning office… [P]eople of any quality and self-respect cannot take it.” (Emphasis added.)


The highest measure of Reagan’s achievement is that after eight years of his presidency, the Iran-Contra disaster notwithstanding, all talk of the presidency as an inadequate institution had vanished into the mists, and has not returned. The National Journal polled presidential scholars in 1985, finding that a large majority thought Reagan had succeeded in “reviving trust and confidence in an institution that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable.” Charles McDowell, national political reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and regular TV presence on “Washington Week in Review” during Reagan’s presidency said in 1986: “If somebody had told me in 1979 that Ronald Reagan by common consent would be ranked with Franklin Roosevelt as one of the two most important presidents of the century I’ve lived in, I would have walked away from such a trivial person, shaking my head and saying there’s no hope for any of us if anyone thinks that. And now I think that.” The Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson offered a similar mea culpa: “I thought Ronald Reagan was the most ignorant major candidate I’d ever seen running for president. I misjudged him. I was wrong.” Johnson, whose politics tilt to the left, added, “I think it was a healthy thing that Ronald Reagan was elected president.”

Even if the depth of Reagan’s insight, personal virtues, and political achievement are gradually becoming recognized, he is still likely to remain the Rodney Dangerfield of modern American presidents—he gets little respect from the intellectual class and much of his political peer group. There is a large superficial reason for this: The gravity of the office has tugged noticeably at the facial features of all of our other recent presidents, but not Reagan. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke during his time in office; Lyndon Johnson’s basset hound face drooped as Vietnam casualty figures soared; Richard Nixon’s jowls got jowlier; Jimmy Carter’s Cheshire cat grin disappeared beneath the furrows of worry and strain. And Churchill, to recur to our previous theme, suffered a stroke and a heart attack during his time in office. As Reagan would become the oldest person ever to be president a few months into his first term, it was assumed that the physical exactions would be even more evident. Shortly after the 1980 election Metropolitan Life Insurance Company produced a study of the effect of the presidency on life expectancy, finding that being president shortens a person’s life expectancy nearly as much as cigarette smoking. On average, being president reduced life expectancy by 3.9 years (or 5.2 years among 20th century presidents). Twenty-two of the 35 deceased presidents had failed to live to their normal life expectancy. Reagan, Met Life projected, could expect to live another 11 years, to 1992.

Yet Reagan, 77 years old at the end of two terms in office, seemed to show little physical wear and tear (his post-presidency Alzheimer’s disease was thought to have been spurred by a concussion suffered from a horseback riding accident in 1989); his facial appearance was nearly as fresh and unruffled as the day he first arrived in 1981, despite giving suffered a serious gunshot wound and two cancer surgeries. Reagan’s age-defying performance seemed be evidence that it was all an act, just another Hollywood production. Surely if he had been fully “engaged” in his own presidency, the strain of the office would have shown up in his appearance. It is only as Reagan became the oldest living ex-president, and new testimonials from his doctors came to light about his extraordinary fitness, that we have begun to perceive that Reagan was as physically unique as he was mentally unique.

Despite the growing acclaim for Reagan, the standard line remains that he was personally “remote,” that the “real Reagan” somehow remained hidden and mysterious. “At his core,” the Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson wrote, “there was something unknown or unknowable about Ronald Reagan.” Numerous authors have put forward compelling insights into this or that aspect of Reagan, but no one seems to feel that they are able to capture the “whole.” Even Mrs. Reagan has validated this view, telling Lou Cannon in 1989 that “You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens.” Much has been made of the withdrawal of children of an alcoholic parent, but it is also true that Reagan’s kind of reserve would be entirely unremarkable in a private citizen. We have become so accustomed to public figures and celebrities baring their souls to Barbara Walters that we find it odd when a prominent person disdains to do so, and unable to reconcile the spectacle of geniality and privacy. Although many of Reagan’s Depression-era generation embraced the baby boomer practice of emotional public introspection, there is reason to regard Reagan as a more authentic figure.

In this respect Reagan was like Sherlock Holmes’ case of the purloined letter: the “real” Reagan was hidden in plain sight. This is certainly true from a purely historical and political point of view. What Reagan said and did is more significant than the tangled subconscious motives that may or may not exist at some obscure—and therefore unknowable—level. Reagan did not mind being called “the Great Communicator,” so long as it was understood that, for him, what he was communicating outweighed how well or badly he did it. Lincoln, too, could have been known also as “the Great Communicator” but for the fact that the aim of his words became the deed of the nation, thereby bestowing on him the higher title, the Great Emancipator. Reagan was too modest to have claimed for himself the title that the substance of his words and deeds point to—the Great Liberator. Yet that is the legacy he ultimately deserves.

Steven Hayward is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989 to be published in Fall 2005 by CrownForum Books, a Random House imprint.

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