February 3, 2011
To understand the genius of Ronald Reagan, one should focus on his handling of an event that occurred days before his 75th birthday. On January 28 1986, the space shuttle Challenger crashed on take-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. Millions watched it happen on television. Reagan, a year into his second term as President of the United States, paid tribute: “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.” He ended by saying: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to 'touch the face of God’.”
Reagan’s great friend and close ally, Margaret Thatcher, immediately sent him a public message of commiseration at the disaster. But what privately impressed her most was what she saw as Reagan’s uncanny ability to find the words that expressed the deep feelings of a nation in its best idiom. She considered this the mark of a great democratic leader.
Analyse the Challenger tribute, and you find most of the best Reagan tricks – the celebration of human courage, the very American belief in the future and in technology, the capacity to capture, through some gift of imagination, a moment that people can hold in their minds. To do this in mass-communication politics requires an element of hokum. If you think, after all, about his use of the words (from a poem written by an American, British-educated fighter pilot whose plane crashed fatally in the young Margaret Thatcher’s Lincolnshire in 1941), you could argue that they do not fit the facts: it was precisely because the shuttle failed to “slip the surly bonds of earth” that the astronauts were killed. But that is pedantically to miss the Reagan magic. He had a way with him that was utterly persuasive. The sentence which includes the phrase is long and difficult to say, yet Reagan paced it beautifully. I remember watching the tribute that day and feeling it working, even on my own hard, journalistic heart.
I use the word “tricks” to describe Reagan’s methods, and that is what they were. But this does not mean that he was dishonest. He understood that the President of the United States, being head of state as well as head of government, is inevitably an actor. The presidency is the greatest stage that modern politics offers. The man elected to occupy it must act as well as he possibly can, and he is no more “lying” by doing so than was Laurence Olivier when he played Henry V. As a former Hollywood professional in the first age of American world domination, Reagan knew what the dreams of the people were, how to appeal to them and how to make them global.
But he also shared them. However corny and repetitive he was (“You ain’t seen nothing yet”), Reagan believed completely in the American version of liberty, opportunity and limited government. He spent his youth on the moderate Left, but came to think differently: “Americans are, in their time of discontent, encouraged by doom and gloom criers who would have us believe our only salvation lies in becoming docile sheep for the government shepherd. I happen to believe government is not the solution to our problems – government is the problem.”
He fought against his country’s demoralisation in the 1960s and 1970s, and although he was a successful Governor of California, he had the courage to live long in the political wilderness for his beliefs. When he became president in 1981, it was an achievement against the odds. He had been out of public office for six years, and was 69, having been born six years before John F Kennedy, who had won the White House 20 years earlier. Reagan was the oldest US president in history.
In fact, Reagan’s age was another reason why Americans liked and respected him: he seemed grandfatherly, beyond ambition, relaxed. Up against Walter Mondale in the television debates of the 1984 campaign, Reagan knew he had to rebut the accusation that he was too old for the job. Famously, he raised the subject first, in a joke that turned the tables: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Charm got him a very long way.
But so did toughness. In the same week as the Challenger disaster, he used the annual State of the Union address to describe his approach to relations with the Soviet Union – “realism – rock-hard, clear-eyed, steady and sure”. By then (1986), Reagan was moving fast in his handling of the Cold War. He had come into office in 1981 convinced that Western weakness under Jimmy Carter had given the Soviets a dangerous global advantage. For years, he conceded nothing to détente, and managed, with the help of Mrs Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. He also, with even Mrs Thatcher trying anxiously to slow him down, launched the Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”) which sought to create a missile shield in space and thus make nuclear weapons obsolete.
Now that Reagan is celebrated for his geniality, it is important to remember that, at the time, these policies caused him to be detested and feared not only by the Communist powers, but by the Western Left and the media elites. Critics claimed that Star Wars would destroy the balance on which nuclear deterrence depended. The myth that he was a dangerously stupid man was assiduously propagated. He wasn’t stupid – although it is true that eager beavers such as Margaret Thatcher were constantly astonished by his ignorance of detail. He was determined.
The determination paid off. The Russians saw that they could not control Europe militarily, keep up with Star Wars financially, or keep down increasingly restive populations who sought the freedom that Reagan promoted. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, they indicated that they were ready to come to the table. Having proved his point, Reagan was ready to deal. In 1987, he negotiated the INF Treaty, which abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons. In June of the same year, in Berlin, he called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. As a result of his policies, something even better happened – in 1989, the German people tore it down themselves. Reagan could fairly claim to have won the greatest bloodless war in human history.
It has now become mainstream to praise Ronald Reagan. Even President Obama, who, as a young man, excoriated him, now pays homage. A recent cover of Time magazine portrayed the two men as metaphorical buddies, holding hands. This posthumous triumph is testimony to Reagan’s skill as a conservative leader.
In an age when conservatives find it embarrassing to talk frankly about their true beliefs, the example of Reagan is very important. He never compromised on his creed, and he always understood what is now called spin – the need to ensure that your public messages constantly reflect what you are trying to do. In this sense, he was ready to fight an ideological war, and he won it. Liberals have to praise him now because he beat them, not because he joined them. But he also, unlike too many conservatives, could always humanise what he had to say. He did this even with his own senility. Announcing in a letter to the American people in 1994 that he had Alzheimer’s, he wrote: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright new dawn ahead.”
That sunny message reaches beyond America. This summer, a statue of Ronald Reagan will be unveiled in Grosvenor Square. I hope that David Cameron finds time to attend the ceremony. He searches constantly for reconciliation between conservatism and cheerfulness. When he studies the story of Ronald Reagan, he will learn something to his advantage.