I grew up with Ronald Reagan. I walked precincts for him when he ran for governor of California in 1966, worked for his election to the presidency twice, and ended up in his administration. I liked everything about him. By the time he became president I came to love him, the way an ordinary citizen can have an honest affection for a public figure.
Ronald Reagan was the antidote to the nihilism of the Sixties. Some in the country—especially the sophisticated intellectual elite and the media—had not only come to doubt our policies, but had come to have profound skepticism about the things for which—I thought—we had always stood. The central idea of republican government was placed in question. The ground under our feet became unsteady. The Carter presidency became the political exemplification of this nihilistic onslaught against the last best hope. There was doubt and cynicism and a lot of shouting. It was asserted that the country was not only ungovernable, but that the American spirit had waned. Carter said that we had an inordinate fear of Communism, and was unable to recognize the nature of Soviet tyranny until the monster bit in Afghanistan. At one point in his presidency, Carter asked the people to think of some nice things to say about America. But his disposition revealed the hopelessness he felt and conveyed to the American people. Even worse, Carter always implied that the people were to blame for this malaise. The people were despondent and gloomy and Carter called for seminars on the question. The ancient creed—the massive fact of the American idea—seemed to be teetering.
Ronald Reagan was the political antidote to this shrunken view of America. He reminded us that we stood for something great, that we were made of sterner stuff than the nay-sayers implied. He not only made the right arguments and proposed sound policies, but his very person, his character, was such as to make it entirely believable. This was an entirely American man. It is almost impossible to disagree with a man who is full of hope, who looks you in the eye and tells you that you are capable of both self-government and greatness, while joking and laughing all the while. The insensate liberals mocked him for his cowboy boots and hat, for his clear and straightforward talk, for his eternal hopefulness. By doing this they revealed for the first time in American politics that they were no longer the party of the people: They had come to mistrust the ordinary and decent. Reagan could be for the people because he truly was of the people. Reagan trusted the people and their capacity for self-government. Everyone but the elites sensed this. The liberal elites underestimated him just the way they underestimated the American people. They may have been embarrassed by his designation of the USSR as an evil empire, but every ordinary person from Ashland to Budapest to Vladivostok knew it was true. The only shocking thing about the statement was that an American president had said it, a president able to make a moral distinction. This was shocking to their nihilistic sensibilities. Yet that simple statement was the final cause of the death of Communism.
Ronald Reagan helped Americans regain their footing. He reminded his fellow citizens what we once were and what we may yet become. He knew that we needed to hear once again the language of our ancient faith, the drumbeat of the American Revolution, the nature of limited constitutional government. He reminded us what held us together, what made us citizens of the shining city on the hill. He helped us reconstruct our ancient faith on solid ground. He was utterly confident that the character of the people was yet sound, and he always appealed to the better angels of our nature. He knew that we were not made of cotton candy, and that free men should smile while they do their hard work in the world. Because of Ronald Reagan the Republican Party became the conservative party, and because of him the country itself was given a new birth of freedom that should be lasting.
The liberals called him simple-minded. The contrary is the case. Reagan uttered deep truths, stemming from the insights of a clear mind and a stout heart, and the habits that come from prospering in a world often difficult. He did it, and he knew we could all do it. And he was right. Although his noble heart has now cracked, his name should survive the grave. And it will. Let flights of angels sing him to his rest.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.