All weekend long across the networks, media grandees who had voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, just like all their friends did, tried to explain the appeal of Ronald Reagan. He was “The Great Communicator.” He had a wonderful sense of humor, he had a charming smile. Self-deprecating. The tilt of his head. Twinkle in his eye.
All true, but not what matters. Even politics attracts its share of optimistic, likable men, and most of them leave no trace — like Britain’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan, a perfect example of the defeatism of Western leadership in the 1970s.
It was the era of “detente,” a word barely remembered now, which is just as well, as it reflects poorly on us: The presidents and prime ministers of the Free World had decided the unfree world was not a prison ruled by a murderous ideology that had to be defeated but merely an alternative lifestyle that had to be accommodated.
Under cover of “detente,” the Soviets gobbled up more and more real estate across the planet, from Ethiopia to Grenada. Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the usual suspects who subscribed to this feeble evasion — Helmut Schmidt, Pierre Trudeau, Francois Mitterrand — but most of the “conservatives,” too: Edward Heath, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Gerald Ford.
Unlike these men, unlike most other senior Republicans, Ronald Reagan saw Soviet communism for what it was: a great evil. Millions of Europeans across half a continent from Poland to Bulgaria, Slovenia to Latvia live in freedom today because he acknowledged that simple truth when the rest of the political class was tying itself in knots trying to pretend otherwise. That’s what counts. He brought down the “evil empire,” and all the rest is fine print.
At the time, the charm and the smile and the twinkle got less credit from the intelligentsia. It confirmed their belief he was a dunce who would plunge us into Armageddon. Everything you need to know about the establishment’s view of Ronald Reagan can be found on Page 624 of “Dutch,” Edmund Morris’ weird postmodern biography.
The place is Berlin, the time June 12, 1987:
” ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ declaims Dutch, trying hard to look infuriated, but succeeding only in an expression of mild petulance. … One braces for a flash of prompt lights to either side of him: Applause.
“What a rhetorical opportunity missed. He could have read Robert Frost’s poem on the subject, ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ to simple and shattering effect. Or even Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lines, which he surely holds in memory.
“Only now for the first time I see
This wall is actually a wall, a thing
Come up between us, shutting me away
From you … I do not know you any more.”
Poor old Morris, the plodding, conventional, scholarly writer driven mad by 14 years spent trying to get a grip on Ronald Reagan. Most world leaders would have taken his advice: You’re at the Berlin Wall, so you have to say something about it, something profound but oblique, maybe there’s a poem on the subject. … Who cares if Frost’s is overquoted, and a tad hard to follow for a crowd of foreigners? Who cares that it is, in fact, pro-wall — a poem in praise of walls?
Edmund Morris has described his subject as an “airhead” and concluded it is “like dropping a pebble in a well and hearing no splash.” Mr. Morris may not have heard the splash, but he is still all wet: The elites were stupid about Reagan in a way only clever people can be.