TCS Daily

His Convictions, America's Convictions

By Ilya Shapiro - June 10, 2004 12:00 AM

"Recession is when your neighbor loses his job; depression is when you lose yours; recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his." With those prophetic words, America turned the corner. The long national nightmare of Johnson-to-Nixon-to-Ford-to-Carter was over, and we finally had a serious, emotionally mature, and competent man in the White House. Most importantly, Ronald Wilson Reagan lived and breathed the American Creed, and understood that optimism and confidence were half the battle.

For President Reagan, beyond the partisan squabbles over this or that success or scandal, gave America the courage of his convictions -- which were its convictions. Setting aside for one moment the practical expediency of the tax cuts and regulatory reforms, the reinvigorated stance toward the Soviet Union and the proxy wars in Central America, Reagan both shaped and echoed the desires and interests of the vast majority of Americans. When Bill Clinton was still a swash-buckling law professor and George W. Bush a washed-up oilman, Reagan was both the man from hope and the original compassionate conservative.

There is a reason, after all, that "morning in America" and "the shining city upon a hill" have become not just cliché but lauding (and accurate) descriptions of Reagan's presidency. It was a halcyon time when more Americans moved into the top two income quintiles than stayed in the bottom one, when the 20-something "misery index" of unemployment plus inflation of the '70s disappeared to the point where we now worry about five percent unemployment and two percent inflation. It was an age when all Americans, liberal and conservative, black and white, old and young, were proud of their country and of their own part in this great republican experiment in democracy.

Moreover, for any child of Communism, Ronald Reagan was the white-Stetsoned cowboy who finally called the Evil Empire's bluff. For the first time in a generation, the leader of the free world demonstrated unequivocally that he knew about the horrors being painted "with a human face" in the captive nations of Eastern Europe. For the first time ever, an American president told his Soviet counterparts that that particular gig was up.

And he did all this with such self-effacing style, such panache, such élan, that it was easy to

underestimate his intellect or undervalue his achievements. So easy that his ideological opponents -- particularly in the media and on the elite cocktail party circuit -- did it time and again, and continue it even after his passing.

"How did that simpleton get re-elected in a landslide?" the Upper West Side doyenne would ask, "I don't know anyone who voted for him."

"Whatever you thought of his politics, he sure had a way with words," intones the network anchor with a smirk that lets you know what he thought of Reagan's politics and that he was not fooled by the President's devilishly clever turn of phrase.

Still, whatever you did think of his politics, you have to acknowledge that the man was larger than life in so many ways, and that ultimately the shock was not that an actor became president, but that Ronald Reagan was the first actor to do so. Reagan told Americans that they could have it all and that they should not apologize for that remarkable ability.

That is why so many of us will remember where we were when we heard Saturday's sad news. Unlike Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion (which provided one of his most memorable speeches), or 9/11, there was no violence to this occasion, and we had steeled ourselves for it to a certain extent. Yet when I saw the update flash on the big-screen during the hockey game I was watching at a nondescript pub in Shreveport, La., I shed tears for a man who left office before I was even a teenager. Though my fellow 20- and 30-somethings were oblivious as they went about their jocular conversations punctuated by flirtatious laughter -- more an indication of hockey's popularity in the Deep South than any political or civic statement

-- I was comforted by the thought that President Reagan would not have had it any other way.

As the greatest president of the 20th century wrote in his last public missive to the nation he loved, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

Ilya Shapiro, whose family fled Russia in 1981, last wrote for TCS about Purple America.


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