I had been working in the White House East Wing for several weeks before I ever saw Ronald Reagan in the flesh. One day, as I walked alone from the East Wing to the West — a path that took me through the Rose Garden and past the Oval Office — I suddenly heard a commotion in the hall ahead of me. The president was coming.
I recall blushing with confusion, and then I saw him heading straight for me. He was wearing one of those light beige suits and was surrounded by a couple of Secret Service agents and a staffer or two.
I was 27 and had just begun a stint working as a speechwriter for Mrs. Reagan. What do you do when unexpectedly face to face with the leader of the free world? I saluted. Reagan laughed and returned the salute. I loved that he laughed.
Americans were not much for saluting their leaders when Reagan took office in 1981. The failed presidencies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had eroded our confidence in our leadership and in ourselves.
Carter’s counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had even proposed amending the Constitution to make the United States government more like a parliamentary system. Carter himself thought the problem lay in the American people, not in him. The intellectuals were saying that the presidency was too big a job for any one man to manage.
And then came Reagan.
Those foolish historians who argue that individuals don’t make history must stand mute when faced with Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments. As he said himself in his farewell address from the Oval Office, “We set out to change a country and wound up changing the world.”
When Reagan took the oath of office in 1981, the U.S. economy was in a tailspin. Interest rates hovered at 20 percent. Inflation, at 15 percent, was devastating families’ life savings. A scholar at the Brookings Institution coined the term “misery index” for the combined inflation and unemployment rates — and it was soon on everyone’s lips.
Abroad, American hostages were spending their 444th day in captivity in Tehran. They would be released 30 minutes after Reagan pronounced “So help me God.” During the decade of the 1970s, the communist world had added 10 new countries to its orbit: South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Grenada, Nicaragua and Afghanistan. America’s military prowess was disdained.
We had capitulated in South Vietnam and botched a hostage rescue mission in 1980. In 1976, a triumphant Leonid Brezhnev had proclaimed: “The general crisis of capitalism continues to deepen. Events of the past few years are convincing confirmation of this.”
Our European allies were either flirting with “Eurocommunism” or sunk in “Europessimism.”
Eight years later, the Soviet Union was in its death throes, Latin America, the Philippines and Eastern Europe were blooming with freedom, the Berlin Wall was teetering, the U.S. economy was enjoying the longest peacetime expansion in history, and American self-confidence and patriotism were restored.
What sort of magician accomplished all of this? No magician, but a great man — with many of the qualities just then desperately required.
He had fortitude. When the recession of 1982 was at its worst; when The New York Times proclaimed that Reagan’s was a “failed presidency;” when most of the nation, including some of Reagan’s supporters, were losing hope; he did not waver. He knew that wringing inflation out of the economy would be painful in the short run and that the tax cuts would take time to work. When the sun began to show through the economic clouds at the end of the year, he quipped, “You notice they don’t call it ‘Reaganomics’ anymdore.”
There were many other gifts that made Reagan a political genius: disarming humor, a natural grace and courtesy, an actor’s stage presence and rock-solid integrity. But his greatest gift was, in Lincoln’s phrase, his “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
It wasn’t just that he believed things; it was that he believed the right things, as history has shown. God bless him.
Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate.