To commemorate Ronald Reagan's would-be 100th birthday, USA Today published seven testimonies to the former president's accomplishments by both influential Americans scholars familiar with both Reagan and his work. The following are short excerpts from each heart-felt column:
No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan--and I certainly had my share--there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America...But perhaps even more important than any single accomplishment was the sense of confidence and optimism President Reagan never failed to communicate to the American people. It was a spirit that transcended the most heated political arguments, and one that called each of us to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything.
For me, Reagan's presidency was, from its very first moments, a call to arms. Just after taking the oath of office, Reagan stood in the center of our nation's capital city and declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Those words struck a chord with small-town, small-business people like me who were fed up with intrusive government and indecisive leadership. The promise of a smaller, less costly and more accountable government was renewed. Pro-growth policies to cut taxes and reduce the size and scope of government were set in motion.
Ronald Reagan believed differently. He possessed an unshakable faith in America's greatness, past and future, that proved more durable than the prevailing political sentiments of the time. And his confidence was a tonic to men who had come home eager to put the war behind us and for the country to do likewise.
Our country has a long and honorable history. A lost war or any other calamity should not destroy our confidence or weaken our purpose. We were a good country before Vietnam, and we are a good country after Vietnam. In all of history, you cannot find a better one. Of that, Ronald Reagan was supremely confident, and he became president to prove it.
The image of the lifeguard seems to represent what Reagan was to America and to the freedom-loving people of the world. He lifted our country up at a time when we were in the depths of economic, cultural and spiritual malaise. We were told that we must accept that the era of American greatness was over; but with his optimism and common sense, President Reagan held up a mirror to the American soul to remind us of our exceptionalism.
America entered the Reagan era as one kind of country and exited it another. His mixture of extraordinary personal and political qualities made it possible. One must begin with his sunny disposition: cheerful conservatism in flesh and blood. The Gipper's irrepressible high spirits tapped into something deeply rooted in the country: optimism, faith in America itself.
When Reagan's infrequent press conferences would end, his aides would scurry after reporters in an attempt to correct their boss' misstatements: "What he meant to say was 'this.' You understand on 'that' he was speaking metaphorically and knows that what he said was not literally true." But of course.
So it became easy for some to dismiss Reagan, as the late Democratic presidential adviser Clark Clifford did in calling him "an amiable dunce." But having a front-row seat to the Reagan presidency certainly changed how I viewed this nation's Great Communicator, and I came to believe Clifford was only half right. Amiable, yes; dunce, most certainly not.
One of the most treasured items on my office bookshelf is a dedication on a thin pamphlet, published in the Soviet Union in 1990, by one of the top authors of glasnost, political philosopher Igor Klyamkin. I became friends with him in the late 1980s. The dedication reads, in Russian, "To Leon Aron, who understands Ronald Reagan's role in our revolution."
What did Igor mean?...
Like all truly great political leaders, at critical moments Ronald Reagan was guided by and openly articulated a profoundly moral judgment of right and wrong, good and evil, liberty and slavery that resonated with tens of millions people in America and abroad. More than anything else, I think, it was this judgment that defined Reagan's "role" in Russia's latest revolution of which Igor wrote--and made it so effective.
Why does Reagan have this hold on us? In part, perhaps, it's because of the perceived deficiencies of his successors. George H.W. Bush was a capable president who failed to win re-election. The politically talented Bill Clinton was stained by impeachment. George W. Bush stepped up to the plate on 9/11, but plunged the nation into two still-ongoing wars. Obama inspires but has yet to find his presidential sea legs.
Reagan took office during a time of economic hardship and national doubt, and restored public confidence as his idol Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression.
In eight years, Reagan provided the leadership that culminated in a remarkable record of accomplishment. He initiated a series of policies that led to the longest period of peacetime economic growth in our history. He rebuilt our national defense capability, assured the success of the all-volunteer force, and provided the finest military forces our country had ever seen. At the same time, he restored our position of world leadership and initiated a crusade for freedom that offered hope to captive nations and oppressed peoples. Finally, by personal demeanor and encouraging communication, he revived the spirit of the American people.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.