Today is the 100th birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the man who seemed to live several lifetimes in his professional career and who arrived at his moment when his nation needed it the most. Reagan spent half of his adult life in politics, eschewing the easy, lazy liberalism of his colleagues in the entertainment industry to champion an intellectual tough brand of conservatism, picking up the banner of Barry Goldwater in the face of his 1964 defeat. Reagan spent the next three decades becoming a polarizing, controversial figure in American politics, but even before Alzheimer’s Syndrome robbed him of his last years, Reagan saw his legacy of liberty and triumph confirmed.
As a young boy growing up in Southern California, the first thing I recall knowing about Governor Reagan was that he kept jelly beans on his desk in Sacramento. Obviously, this was an important political position for the elementary-school constituency. But it didn’t take long to see how Reagan governed, even when Republicans practically everywhere else started running for the hills during the Watergate scandals. While I watched the hearings in Congress over Richard Nixon’s great downfall, Reagan was patiently and defiantly putting conservative ideals to work in the Golden State. By 1976, Reagan had me excited enough as a 13-year-old to follow his campaign closely in the papers, and calculating on a daily basis the numbers of delegates Reagan and Gerald Ford had and needed to win the nomination. He came back from that defeat in 1980 and pushed the GOP away from its Rockefeller wing and put his Goldwateresque conservative stamp on it for decades.
Many people will offer tributes today to one of the great American Presidents, and they will all be worth reading and watching. My friends at Power Line already have two posts up today. Many in the blogosphere and the media will undoubtedly follow suit. The media’s enthusiasm for this centennial is a testimony to the power of Reagan’s legacy and the place in history that his contemporary opponents in both politics and the media tried denying for years.
For my own retrospective, though, I want to focus on Reagan’s ultimate place in history and how he carved it out for himself. How many people today remember what it was like to live in a world of a divided Europe, a divided Germany, and a divided Berlin — where guards with guns shot people who wanted to get out rather than get in? “We come to Berlin,” Reagan told the crowd at Brandenburg Gate, “because it is our duty to speak at this place of freedom.” And it’s largely because of Ronald Wilson Reagan, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa that the Iron Curtain world died quietly in its sleep 21 years ago. Reagan and those stalwarts gave us a world where freedom and liberty triumphed over an “evil empire,” and the first step towards that victory was Reagan speaking plainly about its very nature rather than indulging in the pablum of moral relevancy that Reagan’s political opponents demanded.
As Mikhail Gorbachev tried selling Communism Lite through glasnost and perestroika, Reagan exposed his parlor tricks by daring Gorbachev to risk true openness by dismantling the prison state he and his predecessors had erected in East Berlin, East Germany, and Eastern Europe. Three years later, the entire edifice crumbled without a shot. Reagan’s call at the Brandenburg Gate echoed Joshua at the walls of Jericho, combined with the economic war Reagan waged against the Soviet Union which he knew they would lose. To me, there is no greater public moment in the Cold War from an American President than this defiant call for freedom at the gates of oppression:
If you just want to cut to the chase, here’s the most famous part of the speech:
Happy birthday, Mr. President, from an eternally grateful nation.