The Gipper at 90
February 7, 2001
In his first year as president, Ronald Reagan told an audience at Notre Dame University that "The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we'll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written." More prophetic words were never spoken. On the downfall of communism and the superior virtues of democratic capitalism that win the war of ideas, he was absolutely right. Twenty years on from that speech, the world has changed for the better, but not enough. We are on the right path, but we have miles yet to go and many wrong turns to avoid. Fortunately, Reagan's own 90th birthday tribute to our nation in the form of writings from his own hand gives us a sure road map to follow.
Between the time Reagan left the California governor's mansion in 1975 and his inauguration as president of the United States in 1981, he gave more than 1,000 daily five-minute radio broadcasts, most of which he wrote himself. A box of the handwritten radio scripts was found recently, and the original manuscripts have been compiled, along with other original Reagan writings in a new book titled "Reagan in His Own Hand" by Martin and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner.
This compilation of Reagan writings is required reading for anyone interested in understanding contemporary American life and the promise of the free world. It reveals a remarkable breadth of interest and depth of understanding by the president we called "the Gipper." Reading the book, I am struck by just how much policymakers today stand on his shoulders and are influenced by the world view developed in these writings.
Even liberal politicians who continue to besmirch his name for political advantage honor his memory by the "Reaganite" positions they now espouse and principles they accept as given. We are all Reaganites now, especially President George W. Bush, whose commitment to across-the-board tax rate reductions and pro-growth policies grows stronger every day.
In one of the most fascinating scripts, titled "Shaping the World for 100 Years to Come," the former president reveals just how conscious he is of living at a pivot point in history. Speaking about writing a "letter to posterity" he had been asked to place into a time capsule to be opened in 2076, he said it really dawned on him that the people he was writing to would be "living in the world we helped to shape." Listen to the situation as he described it in 1976:
"The choice we face between continuing the policies of the last 40 yrs. that have led to bigger & bigger gov't, less & less liberty, redistribution of earnings through confiscatory taxation or trying to get back on the original course set for us by the Founding Fathers."
We didn't have to wait 100 years to find out. Not only did Reagan's leadership guide America back toward the founders' path it had abandoned, his ideals and vision for America provided the entire world a lodestar by which to navigate its way into the future. Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, our "English cousins" also abandoned the road to socialist ruin and got back on the capitalist path to freedom and prosperity.
This book has even more to offer young readers who never knew the Gipper than we original Reaganites who stood shoulder to shoulder with him in the battle to change America and the world. What do the writings of a 1970s politician have to offer them, youngsters might ask. Today, communism is dead and buried and the days of economic stagflation he confronted are just another historical period they read about in economics textbooks.
But we still have much to learn from Reagan's ideas and accomplishments. One of his broadcasts on taxation proves the point, since his words are as true today as they were 22 years ago when he said them. Reagan summed up his philosophy of government in just a few words when he told his audience: "I have always believed that govt. has no right to a surplus; that it should take from the people only the amount necessary to fund govt's. legitimate functions. If it takes more than enough it should return the surplus to the people."
Two profound truths about Reagan should stay with us always. As Jeff Bell observes in the Weekly Standard's 90th birthday tribute to the president, Reagan's exceptional communications skills often were given more weight than his actual message. As Bell says, "His decisions about what to communicate were even better."
What he chose to communicate was the all-encompassing lodestar of freedom. As Bell also reminds us, Reagan is a true "hedgehog" in Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor, who knew one big thing — freedom — and relentlessly advanced it with grace, skill and good humor.