Happy Birthday, President Reagan!
Ronald Reagan was a once-in-a-generation leader; the kind of President who America has been lucky enough to produce every quarter century or so. At least, that is, until lately. Since today is the centennial of his birth, it seems only fitting that our nation look back on what his true legacy is and why nobody in current politics seems up to his measure.
I’m sure if he were alive today, the Gipper would be aghast at the current state of political discourse. While there have always been some extreme differences in the view of what role government should play between conservatives and liberals, Reagan was able to bridge them and enact legislation that positively affected every man, woman and child in the United States. Reagan commanded respect, but more than that, people on both sides of the political divide genuinely liked him. And the reason was that Ronald Reagan was genuine; you knew where he stood and you knew where you stood with him.
Reagan was also an eternal optimist. He believed in the promise of America and he firmly held that American Exceptionalism was not a passe term for the history books. He knew our country had a leading role to play in the world and he wasn’t about to be deterred from taking the lead. “Morning in America” wasn’t just a campaign commercial; it was his attitude about life and about what our nation really stands for.
Many forget the challenges he faced upon assuming office on January 20, 1981. The nation, pummeled by a decade punctuated by Watergate, the loss in Vietnam, the Oil Embargo, 3 Mile Island and Jimmy Carter, no longer believed that government could be trusted to do anything right. Stagflation – characterized by high unemployment, high interest rates, high inflation and low growth – was being heralded as the new economic normal. Overseas, America was reeling from Soviet assertiveness in Asia and Europe. Worst of all, a band of militants had invaded the US Embassy in Iran, capturing and holding 52 US citizens. Despite the vaunted power of the US, the country was helpless to rescue them – and humiliated in the process.
Yet, within two years of his inauguration, inflation had disappeared, jobs were growing at the fastest pace since World War II, interest rates were returning to normal levels and the nation’s economy was booming. While people still weren’t ready to entrust their lives to the government, a wave of patriotism swept across the land and it once again became acceptable to salute the flag, as well as the men & women who served under it. Overseas, the Soviets were sent back into retreat – a retreat that, by the end of the decade, would see the end of communist rule in all but a few small countries. America demonstrated that we would stand by our allies, repelling Cubans from Grenada and dispatching Marines to serve as peacekeepers in Lebanon. Those who would dare tweak our nose soon discovered that America was no more paper tiger, much to the chagrin of nations like Libya and organizations like the Red Brigades.
But all these accomplishments were possible only because of Ronald Reagan’s demeanor and personality and the way he interacted with others. I’ve already mentioned his optimism, but it went far beyond that. He had a gift – he same gift that FDR and Kennedy had before him. The gift to inspire others to do more than they believed they could, to believe in themselves and to believe in the American Way. The Reagan Revolution, in retrospect, was about more than converting lifelong Democrats into Republicans. It was about restoring our faith in ourselves.
That’s why, when I look at the political landscape today, I wonder where that leader is today. I simply don’t see one, in either party. President Obama had his chance, but allowed himself to be dragged into the partisanship that has defined Washington for the past two decades. None of the Republican presidential aspirants have the ability, either. In other words, all of our leading politicians not only play on class and economic divisions, they rely on that strategy to generate votes. Rather than reminding us that we are one nation and that when we act with one voice, we are unstoppable; they continue to survive in a divide and conquer mode. I’ve yet to hear any of today’s crop echo President Reagan’s sentiment that “If we love our country, we should also love our countrymen.” And it our great loss that none are on the horizon.
So, rest in peace, Mr. President. You are sorely missed.