TCS Daily


By Ralph Kinney Bennett - June 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

He was amiable.

But he was no dunce.

He had been a movie actor.

But he was absolutely genuine.

He never moaned about the "burden" of the Presidency.

He loved it.

He imbued the office with dignity.

But he retained a natural bond with ordinary citizens.

Democrat, Republican, they loved him.

"My fellow Americans" was not mere rhetorical boilerplate from his lips.

He won his second term with the largest popular and electoral vote in U.S. history.

When "Hail to the Chief" played, he was utterly at ease with himself.

When he was clearing brush on his ranch, it was the same.

Yes, his eyes misted when the colors were presented.

No, he wasn't a "detail" man.

He dozed off in cabinet meetings.

He liked his afternoon naps.

He changed the world.


When he came into office I believed that I would live out my life with my country still locked in the same grim, long, tiring wrestling match with the Soviet Union that had been going on since my childhood.

Terms like "arms race" and "nuclear war" hung constantly in the atmosphere.

Millions upon millions of people lived lives so confined and wretched that even their dreams had been drowned in cynicism.

Cold War without end.

But Ronald Reagan ended it.

He ended it because he knew one big thing. It was an essentially American thing -- a faith in the power of freedom, an intuition so deep it almost seemed genetic.

And in his absolute faith in free men and free markets, Reagan grasped the fatal weakness of the Soviet Empire.

It was not free.

It was therefore corrupt, crippled, and so blindly consumed by its own communist ideology that its leaders did not recognize its dysfunction.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz put it this way. "President Reagan just had an innate sense that the Soviet Union would not, or could not, survive. That feeling was not based on a detailed learned knowledge of the Soviet Union; it was just instinct."


And he acted on it.

With an overwhelming military buildup, an igniting of technological creativity and a concerted worldwide program of attack on every front -- diplomatic, economic, ideological -- Ronald Reagan advanced the Soviet dysfunction until even the communist leadership could see the widening cracks.

In all this he had a curious instinct about those millions living under the Soviet yoke. Even they might be made to realize that human beings are overqualified to be mere communists.

Reagan sized up the Kremlin just like the shepherd boy David sized up Goliath of Gath. While King Saul and his military men were wringing their hands in awe of the giant, David's simple faith in the power that had delivered him "out of the paw of the lion" brought about the end of the fearful stalemate in the Valley of Elah.

I know, I know. It's too simple a view of history. The military, diplomatic, political and economic factors and the very "dynamics of world power" are too complex. What about the "internal contradictions" in the Soviet government? Blah, blah.

The collapse of so vast and vicious a totalitarian empire could not have been brought about by one man, the intellectuals still insist. But perhaps they are still too astonished by what Reagan did to admit that he did it.

Most people today have forgotten or, if they are younger, have no idea, how profoundly at variance Reagan was with the conventional wisdom of his time.

Indeed, there is still abroad an intellectual assumption that the Soviet Union was going to collapse anyway, that everybody could see what Reagan saw, that he just happened to be on watch when the implosion occurred. They see the "reformer" Mikhail Gorbachev as the hero. What crap!

The liberal foreign policy and economics establishment saw no such thing when Reagan was president. They were fearful of Soviet power, and fearful that "cowboy" Reagan would bring about a nuclear cataclysm by angering the Kremlin.

They shuddered when it became apparent that he did not see arms control agreements with a lying, cheating, dishonorable regime as a particular ornament to his presidency.

They were outraged by his "evil empire" speech of March 8, 1983, when he said, "I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written."

This caused untold heartburn in academia. Reagan apparently hadn't read respected Columbia University Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer's 1982 article in Foreign Affairs:

"The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties."

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith opined that "the Russia system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies it makes full use of its manpower." In the 1981 edition of his celebrated textbook Economics, Paul Samuelson, the Nobel laureate, condemned the "vulgar mistake" of those who dared think people in Eastern Europe were leading unhappy lives under Soviet Communism.

And Arthur Schlesinger, the darling historian of the media, had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1982 and returned to scoff at "those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink."

Things looked fine, Schlesinger thought. "I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars in the street," he said.

They did not know what Reagan knew.

They did not believe what Reagan believed.

With fear and disdain they watched as he declared the end to mutual assured destruction and vigorously pursued the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aided the fight in Afghanistan, stemmed the flow of technology to the Soviet military machine and told Gorbachev to tear down the wall.

They were scandalized when he walked out at Reykjavik after Gorbachev's last desperate attempt to stop SDI.

They never understood.

You've had ample opportunity to read and hear the details of Reagan's life this past week. But it still may be difficult to fully fathom what he accomplished when he faced down Soviet Communism with a smile of optimism and confidence.

I have had the fortune as a journalist to meet seven Presidents. With only two of them did I come away feeling honored to have been in the presence of true greatness. One was Dwight Eisenhower. The other was Ronald Reagan.

Seldom has moral clarity, great confidence and strong will been so tempered by common decency and a plain grace.

Last Sunday morning I sat in our little church in Laughlintown, Pa., and I thanked God for Ronald Reagan.


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