- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

The “long goodbye” of Ronald Reagan’s yearswith Alzheimer’s is over, and he is at rest at last. For those of us who worked closely with and for him, the void he left when he withdrew from public life is now filled with a flood of memories of events and happenings both large and small.

I can see him at his desk — having just completed a conversation on some serious topic — an eyebrow beginning to arch and his lips starting to form that slightly devilish smile, and I knew that a wry — and funny — comment was about to follow.

Throughout his public life, he confounded the stereotypes people tried to create for him. I remember a July day in 1974, his final year as governor of California. It was a morning-of-the-world kind of day. You could see for about 200 miles as we flew from Sacramento to Round Valley in Mendocino County. He was going there to accept a long-standing invitation from the Indian ranchers to visit their ancestral home.

It was a sentimental journey, but one of powerful sentiments, for he had saved their valley just four years before. The federal government had proposed to build a giant dam that would have flooded the entire valley — ranches, Indian burial grounds and all. As a matter of policy, the Corps of Engineers never proceeded with a dam if the governor of the state objected. Gov. Reagan had been so moved by the visit of a delegation of Indian ranchers that he ordered the state’s water resources department to work with the corps to find alternative sites. The dam has never been built.

On another July evening, in Detroit in 1980, he completed a long and determined journey when he accepted his party’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention. The journey had included a close but losing effort in 1976, and, along the way, a good deal of conventional wisdom that said he could never win. Yet, his basicmessagenever changed: Reduce taxes to create economic growth, curb the growth of the federal government and bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

Gradually, he overcame skepticism within the party. And, by 1980, his message was what the whole country wanted. In his acceptance speech, he called for people with “a community of shared values” to come together in a new coalition. His buoyant optimism and determination to accomplish what he set out to do were contagious. With the “Reagan Democrats” and many others joining in, he won big victories in 1980 and 1984.

Looking back, it is now clear that his strategy for ending the Cold War began to gel in 1979. One day at our offices in Los Angeles, he brought together a group of independent defense experts to discuss the Carter administration’s SALT II treaty. At the end of the day, he said he would oppose it because what we needed was not a treaty to limit the growth of nuclear arms, but one to reduce arms.

Once in the White House, he pursued a strategy intended to force the men in the Kremlin to choose between an arms race that would bankrupt their economy or coming to the table to negotiate arms reductions. This strategy played out in a number of initiatives: a speech to the British Parliament in 1982 that led to the Reagan Doctrine (aid and comfort for democratic movements inside Communist countries); the Evil Empire speech; the introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); and persuading Germany to deploy Pershing cruise missiles (to checkmate Soviet SS-20 missiles aimed at Western European capitals).

After several Soviet leaders died, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and had his first summit with Mr. Reagan in 1985. At the next year’s summit, when Mr. Reagan rejected Mr. Gorbachev’s offer to eliminate nuclear weapons in exchange for shelving SDI, the Cold War reached its climax. Mr. Gorbachev could not keep up such a race without risking chaos at home. Glasnost, perestroika and pent-up desire for freedom did the rest. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev signed the first START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in 1988.

Fixed in my mind also is the picture of Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in May 1987 demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” These words raced through the countries of the Iron Curtain, hastening the end of Communist rule.

It was pure Reagan, yet up to the last minute some of his advisers were urging him not to say it, for fear it might offend the Soviets.

His voice has been still for some time now, but I can still hear it: warm and reassuring at one moment, chuckling at ironies and foibles the next. Then, in a speech and at a climactic moment, shifting to a determined call to action. Whatever the call — trust the people, cut government down to size, tear down the wall — the world responded. And the world is better for his having been here.

Peter Hannaford’s long association with Ronald Reagan dates from 1971. He is also the author of four books about the late president.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide