We will remember Ronald Reagan as the president who instilled a sense of ebullient confidence in America. That his vision at times lacked specifics, or was contradicted by his personal actions, is irrelevant. He espoused an ideal America that resonated deeply with many citizens.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was known as "the Great Communicator," a legacy from his days as a radio sportscaster and Hollywood actor. He took simple truths, warmed them with his own personality and presented them as challenges and rights to the American public:
A desire for simpler, less strident times.
A disdain for big government, high taxes and regulatory control.
A belief in the rightness of the American way and the ultimate triumph of democracy over communism.
"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" he asked voters in 1980, when the nightly news showed pictures of American hostages in Iran and the economy boasted double-digit interest rates and inflation. The public answered by giving him 51 percent of the vote in a three-way contest with incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and independent John Anderson. Four years later, he won the greatest electoral victory in American history, taking 49 of 50 states to defeat Walter Mondale.
Restoring confidence in a country that had been through two decades of crises - from the Kennedy and King assassinations to Vietnam to Watergate to the Iran hostages - was a theme he articulated in his first inaugural address.
"We have every right to dream heroic dreams," Reagan said. He told the country to gather its pride and remember that it was "the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope" to the rest of the world.
His critics called him an intellectual lightweight, unsophisticated about the complexities of economic markets and unschooled in foreign affairs. They derided his supply-side economic policies of tax cuts and higher defense spending that led to huge deficits as "Reaganomics." Yet the nation and the world seemed to respond to his direct approaches and uncomplicated views.
He called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire," which shocked diplomats but matched the feelings of millions who knew of the brutality, misery and failures of the communist movement. He predicted that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse under its own weight and constantly applied pressure to it by increasing American military spending. Standing in Berlin, he delivered a speech demanding that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall!"
His policies of pressure and the promise of friendship worked. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to the first-ever nuclear arms reduction treaty. There were doubters in the United States, but Reagan won them over by acknowledging his own wariness of the Soviets. "Trust but verify," he said. Reagan's predictions proved correct. The Berlin Wall came down, and former members of the East bloc are now joining NATO.
Domestically he acted decisively, as well - confident that he could talk the public into backing him. He did it time and again, whether it involved the firing of 11,000 air-traffic controllers who had gone out on an illegal strike or passing off the misdeeds of multiple scandals involving members of his cabinet and administration. Even the biggest scandal of the Reagan years, Iran-Contra, in which members of the administration violated the will of Congress by exchanging arms to Iran for the release of hostages, while aiding insurgents in Nicaragua, failed to tarnish Reagan personally. When he left office in January 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.
His personal courage and humanity gave him a special kinship with the American people. He was 69 days into his presidency when he was shot on a Washington street.
Reagan was candid in discussing the pain and the fear he had experienced during the ordeal, sometimes to the chagrin of his political handlers, who thought such admissions might be undignified or signs of weakness. He spoke honestly about waking at night in the hospital and being comforted by a nurse who squeezed his hand and told him he would be all right. That kind of moment strikes a chord with anyone who has had surgery, and the public loved him for it.
In 1985, the president underwent surgery for colon cancer. In another age, such a procedure might have been kept secret, and certainly the details would not have been discussed publicly. But Reagan authorized his doctors to explain everything. That decision was a boon for public health and helped break down the myth that cancer is a diagnosis with no hope. We learned that regular checkups and early detection can save lives, and thousands of Americans took the advice.
Ronald Reagan's candor and his ability to speak to the people from his heart, was apparent one last time in 1994, when he disclosed in a moving letter to the public that he had Alzheimer's disease.
"I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life," he wrote. "I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
Few people ever get the chance to close out their public lives with words of their own choosing. Few have ever done it so well.
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