- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

I feel a bit like a guy who’s been dating a pleasant lady in the office for a couple of years and suddenly bumps into the gal he always adored in high school. As readers will know, I’m very supportive of President Bush, especially on the foreign policy front. But it was unfortunate that a week of 24/7 Ronald Reagan greatest hits on the cable networks should have had to stop once or twice a day to cross to a blinking, groggy Mr. Bush at some G8 press conference with a duplicitous pseudo-ally going round in circles on Iraq for the umpteenth time. Mr. Bush is a great and remarkable president and, between Normandy and G8 and the United Nations, he actually had a very good week. But gosh, it’s hard not to miss the Gipper.

One difference emerged in Mr. Bush’s eulogy for Ronald Reagan, which managed to be both somewhat reductive and, next to his dad, the Iron Lady and Brian Mulroney, somewhat hard-edged, like a stern Sunday School teacher. The president is an evangelical Christian and to try and duct-tape over his faith (as some on the left think he should) would be highly unnatural. But presumably he also subscribes to the Reaganite view that there is a purpose behind the blessings the Almighty has showered on America. To Ronald Reagan, the nation was a “shining city on a hill” — a phrase he modified from John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella, bound for Massachusetts Bay in 1630, and anticipating the colony he hoped to help build (“a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us”). Winthrop, in turn, got it from Matthew and Isaiah. Mr. Reagan just neatened it up a little and planted a 350-year old catchphrase into the language.

Lots of people use it now: It’s like the “purple-mountained majesty” and “fruited plain” of “America the Beautiful”; it’s part of the language connecting the nation to God, part of what David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard calls “mystic nationalism” or, if you prefer, a civic religion. It urges the nation to a higher purpose without sounding like you’re going to be passing the collection plate at the end of the paragraph. Both Mr. Bush and his speechwriters sound a little tapped out these days, but they could learn a lot from looking at what Mr. Reagan did with his shining city: If you’re making a radical departure from the recent past, invent a traditional saying to cover it.

According to National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, Mr. Reagan invoked America’s Founding Fathers more than the previous nine Presidents combined. He turned to politics in an era of dry Northeastern country-club Republicanism, but he understood that it wasn’t enough — in linking tax cuts and small government to the Founders and the first settlers, he made the conservative vision of America a romance rather than a balance sheet. And every great nation, especially a republic, has to be a romance.

For his part, Mr. Bush’s conservatism is neither a romance nor a balance sheet. He’s adopted a lot of the soft fatuities of the left — “Leave no child behind” — and he doesn’t care how expensive they are to implement. On Labor Day last year, Mr. Bush said: “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” With conservatives like that, who needs Sweden?

It may be that there are good sound arguments for federalizing education spending or creating a huge new prescription-drug entitlement, but, if so, Mr. Bush never makes them — or, to be more precise, he never bothers to place these programs within any kind of coherent political philosophy. By contrast, the emerging line on Mr. Reagan from the johnny-come-lately admirers he’s won in the media this last couple of weeks is that, oh, sure, he may have talked tough but that was just for the crowd. He favored red-meat rhetoric but pragmatic policies.

That’s a lot of hooey, but, even if it were true, a bit of red-meat rhetoric would still have been welcome a quarter-century ago. When Mr. Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world,” it’s not just that nobody else in the leadership of the west talked like that, they didn’t think like that. The “evil empire” speech horrified the New York Times’ world affairs grandee, Anthony Lewis: “Primitive,” he sniffed. “That is the only word for it.” Mr. Bush is also wont to talk about evil, or at any rate the axis thereof, and for his pains also gets damned as primitive.

But there’s a difference. The British historian Corelli Barnett has dismissed the entire “war on terrorism” as a fraud, on the grounds that one cannot wage war against a phenomenon. As it happens, the Royal Navy has quite a successful track record at waging war against phenomena — slavery and piracy. But, in the broader sense, Mr. Barnett might be right — that the very name of the war was its first polite evasion, the product of a culture which has banished the very concept of “the enemy.” From grade-school up we’re taught that there are no enemies, just friends whose grievances we haven’t yet accommodated.

Three years on, I think one can make the argument that this fuzziness about the precise nature of the enemy is one reason so many Americans have checked out of the war. The President is getting his way, in Iraq and at the United Nations. But at home he doesn’t seem able to package it all into a great cause the way Mr. Reagan did. Ambitious presidents take advantage of extreme circumstances — the way Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the Depression. Mr. Bush had an opportunity to shift the broader cultural landscape in 2001 — to take on the enervated self-loathing multicultural self-absorption that in the days after September 11 looked momentarily vulnerable. But he chose not to do so. Unlike Roosevelt, he declined to seize the moment.

But even Roosevelt couldn’t have done it without the help of Wall Street and bread lines. What makes Mr. Reagan the most impressive president of the century is that he shifted the landscape without any external assistance — no Depression, no September 11, no nothing: Mr. Reagan got a notion to win the Cold War at a time nobody else had. And he made it happen.

Mr. Bush has set himself a similar challenge — to remake the Middle East. I think he can do it. Right now, he’s played a shrewd hand with fractious Iraqi politicians and devious U.N. diplomats, but he’s doing less well selling the war at home. He could use some Reaganesque clarity and toughness for that, plus a little more lyricism in the patriotic uplift. One of the problems with the Bush administration is that its members think they’re so good at walking the walk they don’t have to bother talking the talk. In electoral politics, that’s a dangerous gamble.

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.

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