The American public’s response to Ronald Reagan’s death reflects the cheerful, American sense of life that Mr. Reagan brought to the White House. There was a sense of grandeur about America’s late 40th president, and Ronald Reagan was as engaging as everyone says, as this writer had the pleasure of discovering first-hand while working on his presidential campaign in 1980. Those youthful encounters are fond memories.
Cartoon by Cox and Forkum
But, memories are no substitute for an appraisal of Mr. Reagan’s political philosophy. From the beginning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan was neither a true defender of capitalism nor a great commander in chief. Wrongly using religion as the moral defense of free markets — and letting faith blind him to the dangers of America’s enemies — Mr. Reagan laid the foundation for today’s faith-based presidency.
On the eve of the 1964 presidential election, he delivered an impassioned plea to elect Barry Goldwater. The televised speech of ideas, in which Mr. Reagan warned against what he called the “ant heap of totalitarianism”, is among his finest moments. He looked into the camera and declared: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
He identified the proper issues — the communist threat, creeping socialism, the assault on businessmen — and he offered a sneak preview of his presidency. He concluded: “[Barry Goldwater] has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny.”
There, in one word, lies Ronald Reagan’s basic philosophy. While Goldwater was soundly defeated, faith — belief without proof — became Mr. Reagan’s most closely held idea.
Mr. Reagan’s faith was most evident in foreign policy. Refusing to face Islam’s soldiers of God, he stripped the Marines of authority in Lebanon, where Iran’s Jihadist terrorists slaughtered them as they slept — and he never punished Iran. On the contrary, he negotiated and traded with Iran’s ayatollahs, exchanging arms for hostages. The Reagan administration policy toward the world’s foremost faith-based dictatorship — which repeatedly attacked America on cruise ships, discos and passenger jets — was pure astonishment and appeasement.
Believing that those screaming God is Great! were proper weapons against godless communists, President Reagan sponsored and armed Jihadists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Talking tougher than he acted, he refused to retaliate in 1983 when the Soviets shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet, killing 269 persons, including a U.S. congressman.
Under President Reagan, America negotiated with communists and Jihadists. While the Soviet state was crumbling, Jihadism spread without serious repercussion. Mr. Reagan did nothing to stop them — a light bombing on Libya in 1986 failed to stop Libya’s sponsorship of terrorism — and Islamic terrorism proliferated. Each time religious fundamentalists hit America, President Reagan turned the other cheek.
Though he once properly called the Soviet Union an evil empire, by the time he declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the wall had all but collapsed. Domestically, Mr. Reagan ceded the Republican Party to the religious right, he increased government intervention and he led the assault on a woman’s right to an abortion. It must be said: the congenial president did real damage to America.
Americans ought to revere what is good about Ronald Reagan — but we must acknowledge reality first. In retrospect, we know Mr. Reagan was wrong — deeply, horribly wrong — when he said America’s best days lie ahead. It was not morning in America — it was high noon and America failed to draw its weapon. The shining city on a hill would soon be decimated — primarily because America’s politicians, including President Reagan, refused to declare war on Iran and their Jihadists.
Ronald Reagan was right that America is man’s last, best hope on earth — it still is — and his goal, to make America great again, means he understood that something had gone terribly wrong. But he did not recognize that America is the greatest nation because it is based on individual rights, a concept based on reason, not on faith. Faith will not save America — prayer will not stop a catastrophic attack — so we must start defending America by waging war on our faith-based enemies. To paraphrase Mr. Reagan, the time to start is now.