He Could See for Miles

  • Share
  • Read Later
What made Ronald Reagan the greatest President of the second half of the 20th century? Well, he certainly had the one quality Napoleon always sought in a general: luck. Luck in his looks, luck in his voice, luck in his smile, luck in his choice of mate (although for Reagan the second time was the charm).

And the greatest luck that any President can have: trouble, serious trouble. An acquaintance of Bill Clinton's has said that he felt frustrated that Sept. 11 did not happen on his watch. That is understandable (if characteristically self-centered) because the best chance any President has for greatness is to be in power during war or disaster. Apart from the Founders, the only great President we have had in good times is Theodore Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were the "luckiest" of them all, having had the opportunity to take the country triumphantly through the two greatest wars in U.S. history.

Reagan's luck was to find a nation in trouble — in post-Vietnam retreat and disorientation. His political genius was to restore its spirit. And his legacy was winning the longest war in American history, the long twilight struggle of the cold war.

He achieved all that with two qualities: courage and conviction. Conviction led him to initiate economic shock therapy to pull the U.S. out of the stagflation of the 1970s. Courage allowed him not to flinch when his radical economic policies (and those of a merciless Federal Reserve) initially caused the worst recession since the Great Depression — and during a congressional election year (1982) to boot.

Reagan didn't waver, and by 1984 it was morning in America. The new prosperity gave a lilt to the rest of his presidency. But you don't get called great for lilt. You get called great for victory. And Reagan won the cold war.

Conviction told him that the proper way to deal with this endless, enervating, anxiety-ridden ordeal was not settling for stability but going for victory. Courage allowed him to weather the incessant, at times almost universal, attacks on him for the radical means he chose to win it: the military buildup; nuclear deployments in Europe; the Reagan doctrine of overt support for anticommunist resistance movements everywhere, including Nicaragua; and the piece de resistance, strategic missile defenses, derisively dubbed Star Wars by scandalized opponents. Within eight years, an overmatched, overwhelmed, overstretched Soviet Union was ready for surrender, the historically breathtaking, total and peaceful surrender of everything — its empire and its state.

Reagan won that war not just with radical policies but also with a radically unashamed ideological challenge, the great 1982 Westminster speech predicting that communism would end up in the "ash heap of history" and the subsequent designation of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." That won him the derision of Western sophisticates, intellectuals and defeatists of all kinds. It also won him the undying admiration of liberation heroes from Vaclav Havel to Natan Sharansky. Rarely does history render such decisive verdicts: Reagan was right, his critics were wrong. Less than a year after he left office, the Berlin Wall came down.

The ungenerous would say he had a great presidency but was not a great man. That follows the tradition of his opponents who throughout his career consistently underestimated him, disdaining him as a good actor, a Being There simpleton who could read scripts written for him by others. In fact, Reagan frustrated his biographers because he was so complex — a free-market egalitarian, an intellectually serious nonintellectual, an ideologue with great tactical flexibility.

With the years, the shallow explanations for Reagan's success — charm, acting, oratory — have fallen away. What remains is Reagan's largeness and deeply enduring significance. Let Edward Kennedy, the dean of Democratic liberalism, render the verdict: "It would be foolish to deny that his success was fundamentally rooted in a command of public ideas ... Whether we agreed with him or not, Ronald Reagan was a successful candidate and an effective President above all else because he stood for a set of ideas. He stated them in 1980 — and it turned out that he meant them — and he wrote most of them not only into public law but into the national consciousness."

There is no better definition of presidential greatness.