- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

A great man’s reach invariably extends beyond the battles he won or the buildings he raised, and can only be fully measured by the hearts he touched and the dreams he inspired. By that measure Ronald Reagan, America’s 40th president, still lives — in countless millions of us.

At the pedestrian level of American politics, it is hard to find an active Republican today who does not carry in his or her mind a bit of secondhand Reagan magic. Thousands of leading conservative journalists, politicians, even academics, are in the business because of Mr. Reagan, or are better, more principled, more optimistic and more effective because Ronald Reagan lived and filled a vast political and human void.

Those who gained political consciousness before the rise of Mr. Reagan were weaned on Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr. They, and a very few others, gave us the ideas and sense of purpose in politics. But it took Mr. Reagan to show us how we could succeed at the practical business of government. He taught us that conservative politics did not have to be a grim, determined march to inevitable defeat each November. He added to Mr. Goldwater’s unyielding principle and Mr. Buckley’s wit and erudition the stardust of success.

There are many wonderful people in the world, but it is only natural that novices model themselves on the man who succeeds. And there was so much in Mr. Reagan worth borrowing. He is justly renowned for his optimism. Many a dreary candidate struggled to seem cheerful because it had worked for the Gipper. This was and is progress for a political philosophy that tends to breed pessimists.

But for those of us who worked for him or observed his methods closely, his greatest gift may have been the lesson that it is OK to gain three-quarters of a loaf and call it victory. Conservatism tends to breed highly principled and unyielding advocates who are naturally repulsed by compromise and back-room deals.

But one of the most useful attributes of Mr. Reagan — and American politics in general — was the willingness to compromise. Mr. Reagan demonstrated that he could get his hands dirty in the wheeling and dealing of politics (both in Sacramento and Washington) and yet remain an honorable and principled conservative. (He, of course, knew — as some of his students have not yet learned — when to stop slicing the bologna, as he firmly demonstrated at the Iceland summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.)

In that sense, he taught American conservatism to grow up, to be more than a debating society. The advance of conservative principles in local and state law, as well as in Washington, in the decade and a half since Mr. Reagan retired is directly attributable to the Reagan model of conservative governance. Ronald Reagan turned the Republican Party into a broadly conservative governing party for the first time in three-quarters of a century.

Even more important than teaching conservative politicians how to be successful, he taught about 60 percent of the voting public that it was OK to vote conservative. The great sea change in modern American politics, which is still at high tide, occurred in 1980, when, for the first time in six decades, a majority of the nation voted for a self-described conservative for president.

Those who do not remember the age before Mr. Reagan cannot conceive how unlikely an event that seemed at the time. An admittedly conservative president was simply beyond the pale of political decency for most Americans. Probably only Ronald Reagan could have pulled it off. But after Mr. Reagan, any good conservative candidate can win. Simply stated, he made voting conservative respectable.

It is the magic of great men that,what is considered normal (even prosaic) after them, was considered implausible or impossible before they did it. Whether it was defeating tyranny, cutting taxes or honoring religious faith, Ronald Reagan opened the door for conservative governance and has made all that might yet be, possible.

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