Editor’s note: Sunday, February 6, marks the 100th birthday of America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan. In commemoration, Frontpage Magazine is honored to present a reflection on President Reagan’s contribution to conservatism, America, and the world.
If in 1980 you had prophesied that Ronald Reagan’s presidency would unleash 17 million new jobs, within six years reduce fifteen percent inflation to one percent inflation, push Euro-Communism to the brink of collapse, and restore the national pride lost after Watergate and Vietnam, even the most right-wing card-carrying YAF member in Orange County would have dismissed you as mad. To grasp the triumph of the Reagan presidency, it is necessary to understand the defeats of the 1970s. It was America’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad decade.
The entrance of “Stagflation,” “Whip Inflation Now,” “Misery Index,” and “Malaise” into the political vernacular speaks volumes about the ’70s. The average household income actually declined during the decade. In each year of the Carter presidency, inflation grew worse than it had been the previous year. In March of 1980, the dollar depreciated at an annual rate of 14.8 percent, the highest monthly level since the Truman administration. The wild oscillations in the dollar’s value naturally affected the prime interest rate, which peaked at 21.5 percent during Carter’s last full month in office. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” never felt so right.
Not since the 1940s had Communism expanded so rapidly. Along with South Vietnam, dominoes Cambodia and Laos fell. Afghanistan, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, and satellites beyond fell into the Soviet orbit. The free world shrank.
Even the land of the free didn’t feel so free. The Vietnam hangover, Watergate funk, gas lines, exploding urban crime, and Iranian hostage crisis all contributed to the widespread feeling that America was a nation in decline. Jimmy Carter understood this better than most when he bluntly told the American people that “all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America,” which primarily wasn’t inflation or expensive oil but “a crisis of confidence.” “We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own,” Carter explained. “Our people are losing that faith.”
Carter identified the problem. Reagan fixed it. The least quantifiable but most obvious accomplishment of the Reagan presidency for anyone who lived through it was the restoration of the American Dream. It was Morning in America again. From the Olympic hockey team making “USA” chants not merely fashionable but obligatory, to Grenada kicking the Vietnam syndrome, the 1980s saw a slumped-shoulders America again hold its head high. Ronald Reagan’s contagious optimism—so good natured that he joked his way to recovery from a would-be assassin’s bullet—uplifted the country.
So did his policies. He reduced the top tax rate from 70 to 28 percent, and greatly simplified the tax code. Americans responded. The economy took off in 1982 and, save for a brief recession in 1990, didn’t come down until 2001. The longest period of uninterrupted peacetime growth in U.S. history was followed by an even longer period of peacetime growth. The stock market tripled. The poor, middle class, and rich all saw real incomes grow during the decade. Inflation, the scourge of the ’70s, simply ceased being an issue of salience in the ’80s. Inheriting a 12 percent inflation rate, Reagan left office with a rate below 5 percent. Similarly, the lifting of price controls and oil-import restrictions made service-station queues and odd-even license-plate gasoline rationing curios of a quite recent but strangely distant time.
America became a freer place as a result of the Reagan presidency. So did the world. Whereas “peaceful coexistence” and “containment” guided his predecessors, “victory” and “rollback” guided Reagan. His 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals marked the dramatic differences between Reagan and his immediate predecessors. Not only did Reagan choose clarity over diplomacy in dubbing Communism “the focus of evil in the modern world” and the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” he correctly, if unfashionably, observed that “communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.” Not merely words, but actions allowed freedom to transcend totalitarianism. Expanding defense budgets, outlining the Strategic Defense Initiative, and supporting liberation movements in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Grenada against the overextended empire helped spend the Soviet Union out of existence. The “ash heap of history” is right.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan. There is a lot to celebrate. But when he died seven years ago, Reagan still provoked bitter outbursts. “He’s a fascist, of course,” New Yorker William H. Depperman told me the day Reagan died. “He is a slime; basically, a horrible, horrible person. People didn’t like him. They despised him.” “Good riddance to Reagan,” Virginian Jared Hermann, also protesting outside the White House, said. “He deserves what he gets and more. He should be tried for war crimes.” Masked demonstrator David Barrows simply declared, “We need to clap when he dies.”
Gradually, the enmity faded—at least within the mainstream. Reagan’s name now graces an airport in northern Virginia, an aircraft carrier, numerous highways, and a large federal building in the nation’s capital. Perhaps most gratifying to the staunch anti-Communist would be the honor amidst the utilitarian architecture, soot-stained facades, and geometric-grid streets of Nowa Huta, Poland. Near where a gaudy statue of Lenin once towered in the neighborhood on the outskirts of Krakow now stands a modest street sign bearing the 40th president’s name.
Like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan was a transformational figure. The world shifted in his wake. In today’s America, 70 percent tax rates, price controls, and air-traffic-controller strikes seem as exotic as dueling or the single tax. Abroad, the idea that Prague, Budapest, and Berlin could have ever been captive cities strikes traveler and inhabitant alike as a slur upon civilization. That is, if the idea strikes them at all—unlike past liberations, the peaceful one that Reagan did so much to realize left no scars upon architecture or landscape pockmarked by stone rows to memorialize the struggle.
He eclipsed his predecessors. His successors live in his shadow. In their accomplishments, George H.W. Bush (Kuwait’s liberation), Bill Clinton (NAFTA), and George W. Bush (tax cuts), Reagan’s successors seem mere stewards of his legacy. After all, it was his military that defeated the Iraqis, his free trade agreement, and his tax-cut cause made the Republican cause. Even in Bushclintonbush’s most memorable lines—“Read my lips: no new taxes,” “The era of big government is over,” “axis of evil”—the president derided as a dummy played the ventriloquist.
Now the current occupant of the Oval Office pays unlikely tribute to its former occupant. Obama made a show of toting a Reagan biography on his Christmas vacation, penned a laudatory op-ed on the Gipper in USA Today, and appeared on a “Why Obama Loves Reagan” Time cover alongside the man he once denounced as a practitioner of “dirty deeds.”
If a former Communist hellhole such as Nowa Huta and the most radical man to serve as president can pay homage to Ronald Reagan, then we are all truly Reaganites now—or at least we want people to believe that we are.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other broadcast networks. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.