On February 6, 1911, one century ago, Ronald Reagan was born. Seven years ago, when Reagan died, millions of Americans waited for hours to share a brief moment with this greatest of Americans. Mourning dead presidents is not unusual: JFK, FDR, and Lincoln all had lavish funerals. Mourning dead presidents who left office fifteen years earlier and who had been out of public life for nearly that long was simply unprecedented, not only in our national life but in the life of any modern nation. Reagan was great in a way that transcends our notions of greatness. Why?
Reagan, while grasping all the odium of modern Leftism, still grasped a happy future too. The greatest power of the Left is the infection of inspiration and the hobbling of hope. Reagan did not overcome that with irrational optimism. He took the long view of human history and blended that perspective with the miracle of America. Reagan understood what the myopic professors and pundits in our land never have: the imperfections of America are trivial compared with the magnificent flowering of human liberty which is our spirit, and the exposure of our peccadilloes before the rest of mankind does not reflect American sin but American sublimity. Smug Europeans were not too wise to be fooled by our land but too foolish to grasp our greatness.
Reagan knew too that man does not live by bread alone. He did not bring religiosity into the White House. Jimmy Carter was more ostentatiously Christian than Reagan and FDR talked much more about God than the Gipper did. What Reagan brought instead was a sunny cheerfulness about God, a quiet certainty that this land – which welcomed oppressed sects of Christians, which elected the first Jews to public office in human history, and which found in the flourishing of private charities (hospitals and colleges, for a long time, were nearly all religious), a verity in the Great Faith, that collection of believing Christians and Jews who have always, when left to their own devices and consciences, enriched life through quiet compassion. Reagan grasped that this charity of the heart was fundamentally different from the slave wages of welfare. He also knew that the living faith of men, alone, lit that lamp of compassion.
Ronald Reagan grasped, because of that faith, the true brotherhood of mankind. His America was filled with people from all over the world. The liberation of men was a holy mission to Ronald Reagan. In that he found a happy kindred in Pope John Paul II, who, like Reagan, was shot at point blank range and nearly died, and, like Reagan, believed his time on Earth was intended for special purposes. Winning the Cold War to Reagan meant removing an enemy of America, but it meant much more than just a geopolitical victory. It meant the end of the Gulag, the end of the nuclear arms race (which Reagan abhorred on moral grounds), and the opportunity of joyful living.
But Ronald Reagan, watching us from Heaven now, would not be surprised that the liberated nations of the Evil Empire all too often have focused on the material, the transitory, and the vanities of life. No one, not even God, can compel us to be good. If Reagan could not persuade the Left in America to eschew Marxism before 1989, when the rejection of that misanthropy took only a speck of light and a smidgen of courage, then he would not have doubted that some people would also seek wickedness even when they could be good.
What Reagan did know, however, is that he had won a global war without bloodshed – a stunning accomplishment unrivaled in human history. Reagan grasped the horror of war, the widowed and orphaned, the mutilated and the maimed, the wrecked lives which bloodshed organized like industry brings. So he “invested” in a way that no Leftist can grasp today: Reagan spent so much on national defense that no conscripted and frightened soul had to hurl his body into a maelstrom of fire and steel to keep us safe. The nightmare of the Baby Boomers, the threat of nuclear war, was ended by Ronald Reagan with no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Manhattan Project, and no D-Day.
Pundits once dismissed him and pundits now try to boil down this great man into a few facile images. It seems never to have seriously occurred to these pundits that Ronald Reagan, the “amiable dunce,” the man who was always reading or writing (according to his intimates) and whose manuscript, voluminous notes reveal a keen mind and a breathtaking grasp of history, might have been smarter than most of them. Their false hubris, their need to be seen as brilliant, meant nothing to this greater man, this nobler soul. The young man who as a lifeguard saved so many lives kept doing just that all his life, and that mission, not the glory or the power, gave his life purpose and worth.