Today, Feb. 6, 2008, would have been Ronald Reagan's 97th birthday. Born in a small town in Illinois in 1911, Reagan, the one-time president of the Screen Actors Guild and two-term governor of California, embodied the American Dream- anyone, born an American, no matter how humble their origins, can become Chief Executive of the United States. Now, almost 20 years after his second term as president came to an end, historians and devotees of political science are taking another look at the man who during his lifetime saw the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
His first forays into acting in high school in Dixon, Illinois taught him empathy. "By developing a knack for putting yourself in someone else's shoes, it helps you relate better to others and perhaps understand why they think as they do, even though they come from a background much different from yours," he later explained, adding that empathy "is not bad training for someone who goes into politics (or any other calling)."
Reagan got his first taste of politics and learned the power of the spoken word at Eureka College. That training also stood him in good stead: 58 years later he would write his first inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1981, entirely by himself. In it, he addressed the economic malaise besieging the country by arguing: "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."
As president, Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in individual freedom. John Patrick Diggins, a history professor at CUNY, sees Reagan as "virtually a libertarian, a political romantic who stood for 'freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart'." Those policies brought changes to the American economy, expanded the country's military strength and helped bring about the end of the Cold War, which had Americans harboring fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union for more than 40 years. Diggins expressed appreciation for Reagan's "boldness in dealing with the three miseries of the modern era: a suicidal nuclear arms race…an expanding welfare state that had made the poor helplessly dependent [and] a joyless religious inheritance that told people their kingdom was not of this world and they needed to be careful about pursuing happiness in case they came to enjoy it." So far was Reagan from being a warmonger that he ignored the advice of hard-liners and preferred "jaw-jaw to war-war". "We must and will engage the Soviets in a dialogue as serious and constructive as possible," he insisted in a 1984 address. But Reagan also followed the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared". His policy of "peace through strength" resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup, including a 40 percent real increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985.
Income tax rates were lowered significantly during Reagan's presidency. Real gross domestic product (GDP) growth recovered strongly after the 1982 recession and grew during Reagan's eight years in office at an annual rate of 3.4 percent per year. While unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in December 1982 (higher than at any time since the Great Depression), the rate dropped during the rest of Reagan's presidency while employment increased by 16 million and inflation decreased significantly. The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills resulted in a 1 percent decrease of government revenues.
During his 1980 campaign, Reagan pledged that, if given the opportunity, he would appoint the first female Supreme Court Justice. That opportunity came in his first year in office when he nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart.
Declaring that "drugs were menacing our society", Reagan promised to fight for drug-free schools and workplaces, expanded drug treatment, stronger law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts and greater public awareness. In this he was aided by First Lady Nancy Reagan, who founded the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign. Whether or not one finds the war on drugs fought by both Reagans a useful weapon in the fight to keep criminal substances away from this nation's children, critics point, rightly to its long-term effect, with such children and teenagers refraining from engaging in recreational drug use by various ways of saying "no". Defenders of the effort point to success in reducing rates of adolescent drug use, successes that continue at the present time.
Reagan was smarter, stronger in belief and faith and far more prescient than he has ever been given credit for. If for no other reason than the words and actions that led to his being nicknamed "the Great Communicator", letting a refreshing gust of fresh air into the halls of government, are all that we have of him, we should pause to appreciate the man, especially on his birthday. After all, who else would have had the nerve and courage to demand that the leader of the Soviet Union (in Reagan's own words, the Evil Empire) "Tear down that wall"? Reagan watched as his words came true--brick by brick, the Berlin Wall came down under the weight of American optimism and will.
Hail and farewell, Ronald Reagan. We shall not look upon your like again.