When we at the Ashbrook Center mark the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, we will remember that he opened the Center in 1983, giving a speech in which he traced the ideals of John Ashbrook to the political principles of the Founding Fathers. Reagan knew that he could bestow no greater honor on the late Ohio Congressman for whom we are named than to say he championed our Founders’ original vision for America.
It is no small thing to say that the Ashbrook Center was opened by a sitting president, and a good one at that. It is even more inspiring to remember that on the occasion, Reagan offered just the right introduction for the work we try to do here. And it is particularly instructive to study the way in which he articulated the vision that he, like Ashbrook, shared with the Founders: They understood that it is the excesses of government, the will to power of one man over another, that has been a principle source of injustice and human suffering through the ages. The Founding Fathers understood that only by making government the servant, not the master, only by positing sovereignty in the people and not the state can we hope to protect freedom and see the political commonwealth prosper. In 1776, the source of government excess was the Crown’s abuse of power and its attempt to suffocate the Colonists with its overbearing demands. In our own day, the danger of too much State power has taken a subtler, but no less dangerous form. Out of the best of intentions, government has intervened in areas where it is neither competent nor needed nor wanted by the mass of Americans.
Notice that Reagan is careful to say that government overreach grew “out of the best of intentions.” And notice that this kindly admission does not in one particle diminish the rebuke he delivers to the architects of the bureaucratic state. I owe a lot to President Reagan. I have been working here since leaving his administration in 1988. Long before that, I was a fresh graduate of Hollywood High School, spending my summer volunteering for Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. But despite my hard work on his behalf in my first semester in college—I missed a lot of classes to walk door-to-door handing out pamphlets—Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the November election.
The great good that emerged—for me, and for all of us—from that failure came in the person of a relatively unknown actor who had given a half-hour long televised speech on behalf of Goldwater. This speech propelled Ronald Reagan into the political limelight in California, leading in 1966 to two terms in the governor’s mansion, and then to the presidency in 1980.
Much has been said by others about how Reagan’s policies set a new course for our nation and, indeed, altered the world. More might be said about his impressive virtues as a human being, and how these contributed to his success as a president.
He was a man who believed in the things he supported. In other words, he was a serious man. This quality has nothing to do with being somber. I don’t know what star he was born under, but he always seemed as happy as a cricket. He was immune to cynicism. He was completely comfortable with himself (just compare him to Jimmy Carter). Insiders testified he was the same in private as in public. He loved to laugh and didn’t hesitate to crack jokes at his own expense.
He strove to be clear and direct, great virtues in a politician who understands himself to be of the people, never above them, but always championing their higher interests.
Reagan’s mind was not sophisticated—that I mean this as a compliment shouldn’t surprise you—and his heart was pure. He had an unshakeable faith in the American cause of self-government, and he proclaimed this. This confidence and courage was often misunderstood, sometimes willfully. His political adversaries thought him simple-minded, and said so publicly. Even his political friends sometimes accused him of being a bit of a sucker, for he seemed so determined to find the goodness in people.
It is a big mistake to underestimate a good man. When Reagan cultivated a personal friendship with Tip O’Neill and a warm working relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, when he allowed competing staff members to pitch different policy approaches to him, he showed that he took others’ positions seriously and trusted them to deal honestly. This led others to trust him. Without this private ground of trust, the necessary compromises of politics are difficult to forge, and constructive settlements are impossible to maintain.
But character is also revealed by what a man does when the whole world is watching. As Steve Hayward has written, “Beneath his easy geniality was a tough center.” Think of him calling the Soviets the evil empire when no one else would (even his speechwriters opposed it) and explaining that his purpose in the Cold War was victory. These words shocked and surprised everyone, but he knew they had to be said.
Because he was not afraid to talk about his love of freedom and the good in it, his fellow citizens were able to reclaim a confidence in the American system that had been degraded by several decades of self-doubting public discourse. Americans felt deeply grateful to the man who taught them once again to love America. It is no wonder that all traffic came to a halt on the freeway in California as his casket was being driven to its place of rest. People got out of their cars to spontaneously and solemnly salute a man who had passed out of this world but left behind a renewed sense of national pride and purpose.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.