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.
Take that cheap crack: If you drop a pebble in a well and you don’t hear a splash, it may be because the well is dry. But it’s just as likely it’s because the well is of surprising depth. I went out to my own well and dropped a pebble: I heard no splash, yet the well supplies exquisite translucent water to my home.
But then I suspect it’s a long while since Mr. Morris dropped an actual pebble in an actual well: As with walls, his taste runs instinctively to the metaphorical. Mr. Reagan looked at the Berlin Wall and saw not a poem-quoting opportunity but prison bars.
I once discussed Irving Berlin, composer of “God Bless America,” with his friend and fellow songwriter Jule Styne, and Jule put it best: “It’s easy to be clever. But the really clever thing is to be simple.” At the Berlin Wall , it would have been easy to be clever, as all those ‘70s detente sophisticates would have been. And who would have remembered a word they said?
Like Irving Berlin with “God Bless America,” only Mr. Reagan could have stood there and declared without embarrassment: “Tear down this wall” — and two years later the wall was, indeed, torn down. Ronald Reagan was straightforward and true and said it for everybody — which is why his “rhetorical opportunity missed” is remembered by millions of grateful Eastern Europeans. The really clever thing is to have the confidence to say it in four monosyllables.
Ronald Reagan was an American archetype, and just the bare bones of his curriculum vitae capture the possibilities of his country: In the ‘20s, a lifeguard at a local swimming hole who saved more than 70 lives; in the ‘30s, a radio sports announcer; in the ‘40s, a Warner Brothers leading man … and finally one of the two most important presidents of the American century.
Unusually for the commander in chief, Mr. Reagan’s was a full, varied American life, of which the presidency was the mere culmination. “The Great Communicator” was effective because what he communicated was self-evident to all but our decayed elites: “We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around,” he said in his Inaugural address.
And at the end of a grim, grey decade — Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, Iranian hostages — Americans decided they wanted a president who looked like the nation, not like its failed government. Thanks to his clarity, around the world, governments that had nations have been replaced by nations that have governments. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries are now members of NATO, with free markets and freely elected parliaments.
One man who understood was Yakob Ravin, a Ukrainian emigre who in the summer of 1997 was strolling with his grandson in Armand Hammer Park near Reagan’s California home. They happened to see the former president, out taking a walk. Mr. Ravin went over and asked if he could take a picture of the boy and the president. When they got back home to Ohio, it appeared in the local newspaper, the Toledo Blade.
Ronald Reagan was three years into the decadelong sunset of his life, unable to recognize most of his colleagues from the Washington days. But Mr. Ravin wanted to express his appreciation. “Mr. President,” he said, “thank you for everything you did for the Jewish people, for Soviet people, to destroy the communist empire.” And somewhere deep within there was a flicker of recognition. “Yes,” said the old man, “that is my job.”
Yes, that was his job.
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator and a nationally syndicated columnist.