Reagan recognized that himself in his farewell speech nine days before he left office. He called for “an informed patriotism,” which he said older Americans had gotten from their families, neighborhoods, schools, “from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio.” Or, he continued, “if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties. But now we’re about the enter the nineties and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.”
The trends that Reagan described and lamented 25 years ago have only continued. Aspiring Republican politicians may claim Reagan’s mantle, but in today’s America even Ronald Reagan could not be Reagan. He was, like every political leader, a man of his times. His inborn optimism was strengthened by his dazzling success in pulling the country out of economic doldrums and his patriotism was reinforced by the unity of a nation mobilized for total war.
As he saw history unfold, he addressed the issues of his day — which are not the same as ours. Contemporary politicians may idealize him as a man of unflinching principle, but the record shows him deftly making his way through the political battlespace, stumbling occasionally, sometimes taking what he would decide later was a wrong turn, concentrating on things he considered centrally important and neglecting other things in the process. None of the contemporary politicians who claim to follow his path seem to have the depth of experience or steady insight of Ronald Reagan — and even if they did, the path is overgrown with briars and weeds. Those who would genuinely follow Reagan’s example need to find their own path forward, through a different and transformed America. The instinct and insight that enabled Ronald Reagan to find his path in his time is a rare gift, one that cannot be copied or cloned by invoking his name.ved they prudently could, the causes of freedom and democracy around the world.