Ronald Reagan: Conservative of the Century

U.S.Senator John McCain (AZ)

May 26, 1999

Thank you. It is a great privilege to accept this award on behalf of that most eloquent, visionary and steadfast apostle of freedom, President Ronald Reagan and his family.

At the time when Ronald Reagan began his presidency, there were few who shared his remarkable confidence that a new age of freedom was upon us, when the rights of man would be ascendant in many of the darkest reaches of tyranny. For most of us who fought in the twilight struggle against communism, the prospect of victory seemed a long distance off.

But Ronald Reagan didn’t see it that way. He didn’t believe in walls. That was his genius.

Seven years before that grotesque impediment to liberty—the Berlin Wall—was breached by the stronger forces of human yearning, Ronald Reagan predicted to a skeptical world the inevitable triumph of freedom.

“Let us be shy no longer,” he encouraged. “Let us go to our strength. Let us offer hope. Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable.”

Ronald Reagan was a proud Cold Warrior; proud to be an enemy of the forces he justly denounced as evil. But being an anti-Communist was never enough for him. He knew that America’s efforts to help humanity secure the blessings of liberty are what truly distinguish us from all other nations on earth. He knew it was necessary to defeat communism to protect ourselves. But he also fought communism because it threatened America’s sublime legacy to the world.

That doesn’t mean that we have to risk lives and resources needlessly, lurching ineffectually from one crisis to another. But it does mean that we should defend our interests and values when they are threatened; that strength and courage should be the qualities of our statecraft; that we should make our way in this complex and dangerous world as President Reagan did: sure of ourselves, firm in our purpose and proud of our heritage.

When I was a prisoner-of-war, the Vietnamese went to great lengths to restrict the news from home to the statements and activities of prominent opponents to the war. They wanted us to believe that America had forgotten us. They never mentioned Ronald Reagan to us, or played his speeches over the camp loudspeakers. No matter. We knew about him. New additions to our ranks told us how Governor and Mrs. Reagan were committed to our liberation and our cause.

When we came home we were eager to meet the Reagans to thank them for their concern. But more than gratitude drew us to them. We were drawn to them because they were among the few prominent Americans who did not subscribe to the then fashionable notion that America had entered her inevitable decline.

We came home to a country that had lost a war and the best sense of itself; a country beset by social and economic problems. Assassinations, riots, scandals, contempt for political, religious and educational institutions gave the appearance that we had become a dysfunctional society. Patriotism was sneered at. The military scorned. And the world anticipated the collapse of our global influence. The great, robust, missionary democracy that had given its name to the century seemed exhausted.

Ronald Reagan believed differently. He possessed an unshakable faith in America’s spirit and greatness that proved more durable than the prevailing political sentiments of the time. And his confidence was a tonic to men who had come home eager to put the war behind us and for the country to do likewise.

Our country has a long and honorable history. A lost war or any other calamity should not destroy our confidence or weaken our purpose. We were a good country before Vietnam and we are a good country after Vietnam. In all of history, you cannot find a better one. Of that, Ronald Reagan was supremely confident, and he became President to prove it.

His was a faith that shouted at tyrants to “tear down this wall.” Such faith, such patriotism requires a great deal of courage and love to profess. And I will always revere him for it.

When walls were all I had for a world, I learned about a man whose courage and love gave me hope in a desolate place. His faith honored us, as it honored all Americans, as it honored all freedom-loving people. It is good that we honor him as the conservative who played such an important role in shaping the best part of the century we now take our leave from.

On behalf of the Reagan family, I thank you for this wonderful tribute to the President. But let all of our tributes to him always find their best expression in our own fidelity to his faith, the faith that could not abide walls.

Thank you.