TCS Daily

The Ronald Reagan I Did Not Know

By James Pinkerton - June 8, 2004 12:00 AM

I started volunteering for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in the fall of 1979. I had just received my B.A. in political science, and so I figured I had three career options: go to graduate school, be a waiter, go directly into politics. In other words, like any 21-year-old, I didn't take my career options seriously. But those were dire times for America: inflation was surging, the Soviets were rampaging, and the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, thought his job was to manage a continuing US decline.

Today, it would be hard to explain to someone born in 1979 what things were like back then. The intelligentsia thought that the US was on "the wrong side of history" and that socialism of some kind was inevitable, if not completely desirable. Indeed, for many, the Vietnam War encapsulated not only the near-criminality of the US, but the folly of anti-communism. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at the time, the Left wanted a strong government and a weak country.

Ronald Reagan saw it differently: he wanted a weak government but a strong country. "We can make America great again," he proclaimed. I cheered at those words, although at the time I'm not sure I totally believed them. Yes, Reagan was my boss, even though I was at or near the bottom of the campaign food chain; I met him exactly once during the 1980 campaign. But as a product of the 70s, I was influenced by the fashionable limits-to-growth pessimism of the time, by the experts who said that the world was running out of everything, that America was losing. Those same experts declared, of course, that Reagan was an over-the-hill actor pretending to be a politician. Some went further, declaring that Reagan, if elected, would bring about economic disaster and/or World War Three.

The 1980 election, in which The Gipper carried 44 states, was not only a landslide in the electoral college; it was also a landslide down upon the heads of the American elites, few of whom could imagine that the onetime star of "Bedtime for Bonzo" could ever win a national election.

Sworn in as the 40th president, Reagan enjoyed his rendezvous with destiny. He cut taxes and clamped down on inflation; the economy grew by a third during his eight years in office. The Soviet Union started collapsing. And he made it all look easy.

In other words, the 80s worked out pretty much as Reagan intended. As he said in his famous Westminster speech to the British parliament on June 8, 1982, "History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches -- political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom." That was pretty good Hayekian stuff, but Reagan went from description to prediction: "The march of freedom and democracy" he prophesied, "will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies."

"No Limit to What You Can Accomplish"

But, one might ask, weren't those just fancy words put in Reagan's mouth by some high-priced speechwriter? Even those who worked for him -- after his 1980 campaign, I served in his White House for three years, and then went back to help on his re-election campaign -- were left to wonder how smart and on top of things Reagan really was. After all, we read repeatedly in The Washington Post that he was "an amiable dunce," and even some of his top advisers were known to hold the Old Man in low regard. Of course, looking back at those days, I can now see how advantageous it was for some top aides to diminish Reagan; in cutting him down, they were building themselves up, taking credit for the successes of his administration. Yet Reagan was too cool to worry about such pettiness; the sign on his desk read, "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." The 40th president worried about accomplishments; in doing so, he let others steal credit.

But admiration for Reagan has come from some unexpected quarters. Joel Kotkin is the former lefty Democrat-turned-New-Democrat-turned-authority on urban economics and demographics. In 1975, when he was writing for The Village Voice, he sought out ex-governor Ronald Reagan for an interview. Kotkin told me recently that he was, first off, surprised that Reagan would even talk to someone from such an anti-Reagan publication; second, Kotkin added, Reagan was "the sharpest interview I ever had." That is, he could thrust and parry, word-wise, with the best of them So there I was, more than 15 years after he left office, still learning about my ex-boss.

But in fact, evidence for an upward revision in Reagan's personal reputation -- his success in the White House has already secured his place in the presidential pantheon -- has been accumulating for some time. In a 2001 book, Reagan in His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, the Hoover Institution's Kiron Skinner dredged up the handwritten scripts that Reagan used for his radio commentaries in the 70s, plus other of his private writings. They show a man who was not a puppet, but rather a mind. In May 1975, for example, just days after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese communists, he boldly declared that it was communism, not capitalism, that was doomed. Communism, he maintained, was "a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature." Not bad for a time when the Great Minds mostly agreed that the Reds were winning.

And here's what he recalled on another occasion:

"I wrote of the problems we face here in 1976 -- The choice we face between continuing the policies of the last 40 yrs. that have led to bigger & bigger govt, 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 . . . On the international scene two great superpowers face each other with nuclear missiles at the ready--poised to bring Armageddon to the world."

In other words, Reagan, all by himself, was thinking through the big issues of the day, drawing his own conclusions. And he was right!

Warrior President

During the 80s, the people judged him, the market judged him, and ever since, history has been judging him. And so here are two more exhibits that I learned about only after RR had gone back to California. I put them both before the Historical High Court:

First, his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), launched with a controversial speech in 1983. It was wildly controversial at the time; Amherst College's Henry Steele Commager spoke for many when he snapped, "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." The dovish Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its nuclear "doomsday clock" to just three minutes to midnight, the most ominous "time" in three decades.

But years later, in 1991, Vladimir Lukhin -- once a top diplomat for the USSR, then the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma -- told me how Reagan's SDI speech was received on the other side. In '83, upon hearing of Reagan's SDI speech, then-leader Yuri Andropov ordered two different studies -- one from the Red Army, one from the Soviet academy of sciences -- to analyze the new American initiative. Two years later, in 1985, the reports came back to the Kremlin, both bearing the same basic message: "We don't know if the USA can succeed with this missile-defense plan, but we know that the USSR cannot." This forced the Politburo into an agonizing reassessment: something, Lukhin recalled, had to change. And that change, the Russian gerontocrats hoped, would come in the form of a young new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took power in 1985. Gorbachev had no intention of unhitching the communist system in Russia, but in the course of trying to compete with the Americans, that's exactly what happened; "Gorby" was an accidental liberator. As Lukhin told me, "Reagan accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union by five to ten years" -- which was fine with Lukhin. And if that single step shaved so many years off the lifetime of the evil empire, that's pretty good in my book.

But it gets better. Once Gorbachev's reformist path was evident, Reagan shifted gears. The Californian, who was derided as a right-wing cowboy, showed a sure hand in signing a nuclear-weapons reduction treaty with the Soviets in 1987, even as he continued the human-rights pressure on Moscow. That same year, he traveled to West Berlin and pointed to the brick-and-barbed-wire monstrosity, declaring, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Just two years later, it happened. The US had won a spectacular victory in the Cold War, at relatively little cost. To be sure, Reagan was building on a bipartisan legacy reaching back four decades, but nonetheless, as Lukhin, a Russian in a position to know, told me, Reagan's SDI hastened America's victory in the Cold War -- a war that Reagan then drew to a close without firing a shot.

The Internet President

Second, Reagan invented the Internet. Well, OK, that's not exactly right, but his administration made the key decision that opened the Internet up to commercial utilization. But wait just a doggone nano-second, you might be saying, didn't Al Gore invent the Net? Or didn't he at least try to take credit for it in 1999, when he told CNN, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet"?

Of course, what started out as Arpanet reaches back to the late 60s, when Gore was still in school. But as for "creating the Internet" as THE Internet, one might turn to a 2000 book written by Reed Hundt, who declares himself to be one of Gore's biggest fans. Hundt's memoir of his tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993-1997, You Say You Want a Revolution: A Story of Information Age Politics, was written, in part, to help Gore's presidential prospects; in a talk four years ago to the New America Foundation, he described himself as "Al's lieutenant," sent to the FCC to "implement his agenda." Yet even so, the author's basic honesty got in the way of his political advocacy.

On page 133 of his book, Hundt noted that a "far-sighted, or accidentally smart" ruling by the Reagan-era FCC prohibited phone companies from levying "access charges" on data, as distinct from voice transmissions. "In the absence of the FCC's decision," Hundt writes, "the Internet would have been so expensive that [founder Marc] Andreesen's Netscape would not have been a hiccup, much less one of the first bubble stocks of the Internet." Let's pause over this for a moment. Even a pro-Gore Democrat concedes that the biggest pro-Internet inflection point dates back to the early 80s. In fact, if one looks up the case -- MTS and WATS Market Structure Order, 97 FCC 2d 682 (1983) -- one sees that the FCC was then chaired by Mark Fowler, a Reagan appointee. And so Gore looks less like a prime mover, and more like a free rider.

And Reagan, meanwhile, gets credit -- or should get credit -- for picking free-market heroes such as Fowler. Did the Gipper ever know about the Net? Maybe not, but it hardly matters; even through lean times, such as the 70s, he never lost his faith in the genius of the American people and in the almost-magical powers of the free market. So if someone had told him that American enterprise had created a Next Big Thing that was adding trillions of economic output, he would probably have said, "Well, of course."

A quarter-century after my first contact with Ronald Reagan, I now see that he was right: our best days as Americans are still ahead of us, as they are always ahead of us -- because there are no natural limits on the capacity of free minds. Reagan knew it then; I finally know it now.

Ronnie, we hardly knew ye. But as we come to know you more, even as you are gone, so we love you more.


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