By Charles Krauthammer June 11, 2004
The second-greatest president of
the 20th century dies (with Theodore
Roosevelt coming a close third), and the liberal establishment that
alternately ridiculed and demonized Ronald Reagan throughout his
presidency is in a quandary. How to remember a man they
for eight years but who enjoys both the overwhelming affection of the
American people and decisive vindication by history?
found their way to do it. They dwell endlessly on the man's
sunny personality, his good manners. Above all, his optimism.
is the perfect way to trivialize everything that Reagan was or
Pangloss was an optimist. Harold Stassen was an optimist.
was an optimist. Optimism is nice, but it gets you nowhere unless
also possess ideological vision, policy and prescriptions to make it
real, and, finally, the political courage to act on your convictions.
Every other person on the No. 6 bus is an optimist. What
Reagan was what he did and said. Reagan was optimistic about
amid the cynicism and general retreat of the post-Vietnam era because
he believed unfashionably that America was both great and good -- and
had been needlessly diminished by restrictive economic policies and
timid foreign policies. Change the policies and America would be
restored, both at home and abroad.
He was right.
Moreover, at the time, Reagan's optimism was deemed pejorative. It was the cockeyed optimism of the simpleton, a man too shallow, unsophisticated, unschooled and unthinking -- in short, too stupid -- to know better. An "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford, wisest of the Washington wise men, dubbed him. Justin Kaplan's 1992 edition of Bartlett's has only three quotes from Reagan -- all trivial, all designed to make him look silly. It was only under pressure that the next edition added "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and other historic lines.
Clifford and Kaplan spoke for an establishment that considered Reagan a simplistic primitive -- whose simplistic primitivism was endangering the world. These were the twin themes: Reagan was stupid, and his stupidity made him dangerous. Those too young to remember the 1980s would be astonished to know how common the notion was of Reagan as a warmonger.
In the early '80s, the West
nuclear hysteria -- a sudden panic about imminent nuclear destruction
and a mindless demand to "freeze" nuclear weapons. What had
bring this on? Reagan had become president. Like George W.
the U.S. president was seen as a greater threat to peace than was the
enemy he was confronting.
The nuclear freeze and the
accompanying hysteria are an embarrassment that liberals prefer to
forget today. Reagan's critics completely misunderstood the
the power of his nuclear posture. He took a very hard line on the
Soviets, who had broken the nuclear status quo by placing missiles in
Europe. Backed by Margaret
Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, Reagan faced the
Soviets down -- despite enormous "peace" demonstrations throughout the
West, including the largest one to date in U.S. history (New York
1982) -- and ultimately forced the Soviets to dismantle the missiles
and begin their overall retreat.
Rarely has a president been so quickly and completely vindicated by history. The Berlin Wall came down 10 months after Reagan left office. His policies of unrelenting toughness won the Cold War and brought a new peace. That is because Reagan understood that the key to peace was never arms control. Security had nothing to do with the number of weapons; it had everything to do with the intention and power of those who possessed them.
Accordingly, Reagan put relentless pressure on the possessors of that power, the Soviet commissars, through his nuclear hard line, military buildup, Strategic Defense Initiative and the Reagan Doctrine of supporting anti-communist guerrillas everywhere (especially Nicaragua). Ultimately, that pressure brought about the collapse of the overextended Soviet empire. The result was the most profound peace the world had experienced in 60 years -- since the very beginning of the totalitarian era in the early 1930s.
success is an understandable embarrassment to the critics who opposed
his every policy. They supported the freeze, denounced the
buildup, ridiculed strategic defenses, opposed aid to the Nicaraguan
anti-communists and derided Reagan for telling the truth about the
So now they praise his sunny
Normally, people speak
well of the recently deceased to honor the
dictum of being kind to the dead. When Reagan's opponents
speak well of
him now, however, they are trying to be kind to themselves.