Ronald Reagan, were he still living, would celebrate his 100th birthday today. Yet even the decades that have elapsed since his presidency have not been able to dim the affection people feel for him. The longer he is gone, the more he is esteemed. Indeed, that esteem is now so widespread that even those who notoriously abused Reagan while he lived find themselves unable to deny his greatness or to resist the impulse to sing his praises.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan inaugurated the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, where I am now the executive director. My observation then, and in Washington when I worked in his administration, is that his personal virtues were connected with his larger policies. In being a good man, he became a great president.
I was always struck by the way Reagan seemed to be a balanced human being and to actually believe in the things he supported. He always came across as a serious man who was comfortable with himself and at ease with his decisions. His sharp wit and sense of humor were often directed at himself. There was no fragile ego with him, no search for a phony authenticity, no cynicism.
Reagan seemed, instead, to want to be clear and simple and direct, great virtues in a politician who understands himself to be of the people, never above them, but somehow always for them.
Reagan’s unfailing faith in the ability of his fellow Americans to know and to understand what was in their best interests could not be shaken by those who doubted it and suggested artifice. He seemed to have an honesty of purpose and an unchanging confidence in the American cause of self-government.
This confidence and courage was often misunderstood, sometimes willfully. His political adversaries thought him simple-minded. It is a big mistake to underestimate a good man. Reagan’s greatness here stemmed from his goodness. His greatness was in making men know and understand that which was good in themselves and calling upon them to embrace it and put it to work.
If character is doing the right thing when no one is looking, it also can be revealed by doing the right thing when the whole world is looking. Even as Reagan could bring out the best in men, he did not shrink from pointing out the worst in them when necessity demanded it.
As many of his biographers have noted, 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 surprised everyone but he knew they had to be said, and looking back now, we know those words were good and true.
Reagan also was a student of American freedom and of what he called “the architecture of American democracy.” He knew that whatever struggles we faced, we were a light unto the world. We were the beacon pushing through the shadows of tyranny and proving to the world that men could, and should, govern themselves.
Reagan’s goodness, then, was an authentically American goodness, and it informed his approach to every aspect of his governance. His courage came from conviction, and his ability to speak plain truth to power came from a deep understanding and appreciation of the power of truth.
Because Reagan was not afraid to talk about this love of freedom and the good in it, his fellow citizens came to trust him and to love both him and the country that made him.
He died in 2004 at age 93, and it did not surprise anyone that all traffic came to a halt on that freeway in California as his casket passed by. People got out of their cars and, with spontaneous solemnity, saluted a man whose life work may have been finished but for whom the honor remains, even as he reaches his centenary.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.