If the beginning of my political initiation was the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, the highlight of which was “the speech” delivered by Ronald Reagan to a Los Angeles audience, the maturity of my political thought began in 1980 with Reagan’s election as President. He was, along with Margaret Thatcher, my largest hero in public life, one who more than anyone else convinced me that ideas really do have consequences and that conservative values, properly understood and communicated, have strong underlying resonance in America.As I soaked up the commentary immediately following the announcement of Reagan’s death last month, I was struck by the weight of the emphasis on his style over his substance. By this I mean that for most of the commentators, even many of those who were very close to him over a long period, the focus was more on his affability, his communication skills, his temperamental capacity for disagreeing without being disagreeable, his optimism, his charm, and his essential humanity, rather than the substance of his policy initiatives and his convictions. Peggy Noonan was one early exception. She went to great lengths to explain the degree to which underlying philosophical and intellectual points were very carefully woven (by him, to be sure) into most of his memorable speeches and pronouncements, and that this intended substance of them transcended even the quality of their delivery. To me, this is the core of the genius of Ronald Reagan, much of the reason he was so widely underestimated by his opponents, and why he will ultimately be grouped among the handful of great Presidents. There is here also a big reason why the mainstream punditry doesn’t like the idea of acknowledging this fact, because they know that Reagan, beyond his leadership that produced victory in the Cold War, which most of them now begrudgingly admit, presided over the most significant American political transformation since the early 1930’s, and it was mainly about the substance of his ideas, not simply about style.
One of my big disappointments is that his immediate Republican successors were unable and/or unwilling to aggressively defend major elements of this substance and the revolution it spawned, particularly as to the success of supply-side fiscal policy, which failure to defend provided an opening for eight years of Bill Clinton. And then there are many on the left like Carl Bernstein who seem to believe that the policy of “containment” of Soviet communism, as devised by George Kennan in the Truman years, and its derivative strategy of “mutually assured destruction”, was simply brought to maturity and completed by Ronald Reagan in the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union! Really? Who do these people think they are fooling? I don’t seem to remember any period of time between the early 1950’s and the election of 1980 in which the Cold War and our principal adversary in it were considered by the media and intellectual class as anything less than permanent fixtures on the geopolitical landscape, if not morally equivalent opponents. In this, as in so much else, Reagan completely changed the mindset.
Fred Barnes reminds us of Sidney Hook’s distinction between an eventful man and an event-making man, the key difference being that while both may arrive at a fork in the historical road, the event-making man helped create the fork. The event-making man also “leaves the positive imprint of his personality upon history—an imprint that is still observable after he has disappeared from the scene.” That’s Reagan. Worthy of Mount Rushmore? You bet.