This is one of two essays I wrote for my 20th century Presidency class. If you enjoy this one, you may also like my look at Kennedy.
The line stretched out beyond sight. It would be a three to six hour wait, but over a hundred thousand Americans joined in the solemn procession on June 11, 2004 to pay their final respects to the former president (Lying in State). Ronald Reagan had come into office in 1981 and served two terms. During his presidency the United States experienced economic growth and the Cold War neared its surprisingly rapid conclusion, but it was not simply his political successes that brought him such admiration. In his Second Inaugural Address, Reagan referred to an “American sound” or “song” that reverberated through generations of Americans and expressed their deepest aspirations (1/21/85). Reagan was able to sing that song. He espoused an optimistic and inspiring philosophy that spoke to core beliefs of freedom, individualism, exploration, and courage. While he did not rise to his own standard on every occasion, this philosophy brought Reagan public support and guided major policies throughout his presidency.
Reagan was a strong proponent of American exceptionalism, the belief that America was special in the world and in history. In his speech announcing his campaign for the presidency, he declared that the nation had a “rendezvous with destiny” that was waiting to be fulfilled since 1630 when John Winthrop gave a sermon calling America a “shining city on a hill,” an example to all other people (11/13/79). Reagan saw the threats facing America in his time as particularly apocalyptic. Referring to problems in the economy, foreign policy, and energy policy, Reagan made the exaggerated declaration that “[n]ever before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence” (6/17/1980). Other nations, in his view, were blessed with the presence of America if the prospects of liberty were extinguished in their own lands, but the Americans had no such luxury. “If we lose freedom,” said Reagan, “there is no place to escape to” (10/27/64). To him, freedom had been born in America and that would be the location of its “last stand on Earth” (10/27/64). The strands of American exceptionalism are woven throughout Reagan’s philosophy, and are especially evident in his foreign policy.
Much of Reagan’s optimism stemmed from his ability to always express faith in the future. America has been infused from its inception with a belief that, through the combination of hard work, ingenuity, and freedom, the future will be made better than the present. In the 1970s, Reagan was alarmed to see that America’s leaders had resigned themselves to the idea that this progress had come to an end, that their children’s lives would “be less full and prosperous” (11/13/79). He made his opposition clear, saying, “I don’t believe that. And, I don’t think you do either” (11/13/79). In contrast to the down-to-earth style of Jimmy Carter that he found depressing, Reagan placed himself on the side of the people as an optimistic voice standing for the dream of America. He renounced the idea of a “fate that will fall on us no matter what we do,” and reassured Americans that if they strove for it, they could still build a “better tomorrow” (1/21/85). In his last public statement, Reagan said, “I know that for America there will always be a bright future ahead” (Woodward 168). There is a profound rhetorical power to this optimism. No matter what the facts of a situation may be, it is hard not to be inspired and motivated by the declaration that everything will work out for the best. Reagan’s use of this technique was a strong factor in his ability to win the support and admiration of the American people.
Reagan also spoke of the past to support his policies. Almost all of his speeches include references to historical events or figures. These references were often rough and idealized interpretations of events. For example, in the speech he gave after receiving the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan lays out his history of America that spans seamlessly from the Mayflower compact, to the American Revolution, and into the Civil War (6/17/80). Less glorious aspects of American history such as the treatment of Native Americans are entirely absent. Reagan then placed himself into this mythologized tradition of liberty by saying it was “once again time to renew our compact of freedom” (6/17/80). Reagan did not use history as a means to understand and critically evaluate situations. Although he was quick to turn to the founders when they agreed with his own policies, he openly refutes certain principles they thought essential. While Washington, Jefferson, and other prominent members of the founding generation boldly stood against the idea of entangling the United States in foreign wars, Reagan believed the opposite, that “isolation never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments” (6/6/84). This trend, however, does not necessarily mean that Reagan was an intentionally dishonest historian. To him the ideas, not the facts, were important. While this can be seen as disingenuous on some level, there is also a certain value, in a political context, to presenting a mythical history that emphasizes what the nation aspires to be rather than dwelling on its less than perfect record in that pursuit.
Reagan’s domestic policy as president was focused around reducing the size and influence of the federal government. In his First Inaugural Address, Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” (1/20/81). While Reagan saw his opponents blaming the people for their economic and social troubles, the only mistake he assigned to Americans was their trust in an “intellectual elite in a far distant capital” (10/27/64). Despite the “sincerity” and “humanitarian motives” of this group, Reagan argued that government as an institution was incapable of creating prosperity or positive social developments (10/27/64). Its only tools were “force and coercion” (10/27/64). Rather than providing creative solutions to problems, it came up with harsh fines, jail cells, and confiscation of property. Beyond ineffective, the government’s programs actively stifled the potential of the people to solve their own problems. Reagan’s vision of government affirmed his belief in the “American spirit” (11/13/1979). It was infused with the values of individualism, ingenuity, and self reliance that made it attractive to Americans whether they agreed with all of his particular policies or not.
Reagan’s small government rhetoric was not meant to imply that he wanted to “destroy the system of benefits which flow to the poor, elderly, the sick and the handicapped” (11/13/79). Although he condemned the federal government as the “costliest and most inefficient provider” of such aid, Reagan was unwilling to dismantle entirely the social safety net that had built up since the New Deal (11/13/79). Perhaps he was genuine in this belief, but he may have also made the political calculation that advocating a total abandonment of these programs would make him highly vulnerable to the charge that he lacked compassion. By arguing that the government should reduce spending and increase its efficiency, while still providing those services he deemed essential, Reagan made his philosophy of limited government relatively invulnerable to such attacks. In order to oppose him, his opponents would effectively have to argue that the government should operate with less efficiency, spend more money than was required, and intrude unnecessarily in the lives of its citizens.
One of Reagan’s most touted domestic polices was the reduction of taxes. After accepting his presidential nomination, Reagan promised a “30 percent reduction in income tax rates over a period of three years” (6/17/80). In the same speech, Reagan asserted that “every major tax cut in this century has strengthened the economy” (6/17/80). But lowering taxes is only one aspect of fiscal responsibility. Because the federal government has the ability to incur a national debt, it can continue to spend money regardless of revenue. In his speeches Reagan reviled the idea of deficit spending, warning that continuing the trend “is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals” (1/20/81). He even wanted to “make it unconstitutional for the federal government to spend more than the federal government takes in” (1/21/85). Yet, one must wonder at his sincerity. Despite warnings that it would create great social disruptions, and his own call to make the practice illegal, the national debt was higher when Reagan completed his two terms than when he took office. He believed expensive military programs were important enough to be funded, but apparently lacked the resolve to stick to his own rhetoric and raise the money to fund them. Reagan tried to have both his expensive defense policies and low taxes, and despite his later regrets in his Farewell Address, he can only appear hypocritical in this decision.
The Soviet Union represented the antithesis of Reagan’s philosophy of government. Throughout his presidency he was more outspoken against communism than his predecessors had been. In his Evil Empire Speech, Reagan declared that the Soviet Union “runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens” (6/8/82). Seeing government controls on agriculture in America as oppressive, Reagan was almost gleeful at the failures of the Soviet’s communist agricultural system. He asserted that, despite employing “one-fifth of its population in agriculture,” the Soviet Union was “unable to feed its own people” (6/8/82). Reagan argued that “the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture,” was the only thing keeping it from the “brink of famine” (6/8/82). He went on to point out that refugees “always” streamed “away from, not toward the Communist world” (6/8/82). In one of his most biting remarks, Reagan pointed to the “NATO line” where, “our military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion,” and on the other side “Soviet forces also face east to prevent their people from leaving” (6/8/82). This was a crucial difference that points to the core of Reagan’s philosophy for both domestic and foreign policy. The governments of the free world were designed to promote the freedom, prosperity, and security of their people, while in the communist world government fought for its own power at the expense of its people.
Reagan was not content to see his policies implemented in the United States. In the Evil Empire Speech, Reagan stated, “[t]he objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities” (6/8/82). It was time, he argued, that the United States “committed [itself] as a nationâ€”in both the public and private sectorsâ€”to assisting democratic development” (6/8/82). He believed the values of America were fundamental human values, and it was the duty of the United States to spread those ideals to other nations. By the time of his 1987 speech in West Berlin, Reagan saw the beginnings of change taking hold in the Soviet Union, but worried that they might be “token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the west,” or worse, “to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it” (6/12/87). Reagan believed the Soviets had to take an action to indicate the sincerity of their reforms. In one of his most memorable lines, he demanded to the Soviet leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (6/12/87). Where earlier presidents had advocated containing communism, Reagan wanted to play an active role in its demise.
Reagan was a firm supporter of a strong national defense. In the Evil Empire Speech he argued that “military strength is a prerequisite to peace,” and he feared that previous administrations had reduced military capabilities to dangerous levels (6/8/82). One of Reagan’s major national security objectives was the reduction of nuclear weapons. In his Second Inaugural Address, he advocated the long term goal of the “total elimination” of “nuclear weapons from the face of the earth” (1/21/85). Reagan saw no “logic or morality” in the nuclear deterrence strategy that had existed between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades (1/21/85). Rather than accepting the political reality of Mutually Assured Destruction, Reagan “approved a research project to find, if we can, a security shield that will destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target” (1/21/85). Instead of killing people, the Strategic Defense Initiative would destroy weapons. He optimistically boasted that the shield would “render nuclear weapons obsolete” (1/21/85). Reagan even claimed that the technology would be shared with the Soviet Union. This defense system was never actually implemented, but the ambition behind it demonstrates Reagan’s resolve to build a more peaceful future which was free from the threat of nuclear war.
Reagan’s handling of the Challenger disaster is a perfect encapsulation of his political behavior and philosophy at work. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after lift off, and all seven crew members were killed. Reagan was able to turn this tragedy into an occasion for hope and optimism. Reagan declared that the “Challenger crew was pulling us into the future,” and the future “doesn’t belong to the fainthearted” (1/28/86). It was a tough blow, he admitted, but Americans were strong enough to bear it, and they would push forward. He chimed in with the “music” of America and his hope for the future by saying “[n]othing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue” (1/28/86). Toward the end of the speech Reagan noted that on that day 390 years ago, the explorer “Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship” (1/28/86). He placed the Challenger crew into history beside Drake, assuring Americans that “their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete” (1/28/86). Reagan even used this occasion to take a thinly veiled shot at the Soviet Union by praising the fact that America’s space program did not hide its accidents, and implying that certain other, less free, nations did.
The Iran-Contra incidents represent the darker side of the Reagan’s presidency. Members of Reagan’s administration secretly sold weapons to supposedly moderate factions within Iran in order to encourage the release of American hostages. While Reagan initially insisted that he did not “trade arms for hostages,” he eventually admitted that the exchanges had occurred (Woodward 127). He tried to assure the American people it was a mistake that went against his policy, and he maintained that his “heart and best intentions still told him” he did not make such deals (Woodward 127). It was later discovered that the money from the arms deals had been diverted to the Contra fighters in Nicaragua, a rebel group opposing the leftist Sandinistas. While the Contras were not democratic, Reagan supported their cause because he saw them as allies in the fight against communism. The United States had previously been funding the Contras, but Congress later decided to forbid the funding. As no one has “discover[ed] any information to challenge Reagan’s assertion” that he had no prior knowledge of the diversion of funds, it is difficult to say exactly how Iran-Contra should reflect on Reagan’s character (Woodward 151). Reagan was openly “horrified” that Congress had cut off the Contra’s funding, and may have felt a moral obligation to continue supporting the fighters (Woodward 141). However, by deciding to go against the will of Congress, the most representative branch of the federal government, Reagan reveals a willingness to act against the interests of the peopleâ€”a charge he leveled against his opponents in 1964. Ultimately, it seems that Iran-Contra could not have happened without at least the president’s tacit approval. Even if it did occur without his knowledge, he would have to bear the responsibility of allowing actions in his administration to fall out of his control.
Reagan espoused an optimistic and inspiring philosophy that tapped into the core beliefs of America. While he did not rise to his own standard on every occasion, this philosophy brought Reagan public support and guided major policies throughout his presidency. It may be tempting to condemn political figures for their imperfections, but the understanding of history is a more complex prospect, and should go beyond a tallying of positives and negatives. Reagan was certainly imperfect. His philosophy played loosely with history and was perhaps naÃ¯ve in some other respects. At times the reality of his actions contradicted his rhetoric. And yet the core values of his philosophy spoke, or “sang,” to the American people in language that was both clear and elegant. His optimism, his belief in the power of freedom, and his faith in the future should continue to guide Americans as they carry on with their hopes and journeys.
[10/27/64] Reagan, Ronald. A Time for Choosing.
[11/13/79] Reagan, Ronald. Intent to Run for President.
[6/17/80] Reagan, Ronald. Time to Recapture our Destiny.
[1/20/81] Reagan, Ronald. First Inaugural.
[6/8/82] Reagan, Ronald. Evil Empire Speech.
[1/21/85] Reagan, Ronald. Second Inaugural Address.
[1/28/86] Reagan, Ronald. Challenger.
[6/12/87] Reagan, Ronald. Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate.
[1/11/89] Reagan, Ronald. Farewell Address
Lying In State for former President Reagan.
Woodward, Bob. Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.