- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

In the spring of 1926, the small town of Dixon, Ill., had to face facts. After several young men and women drowned in Rock River, the city fathers concluded that to avert further tragedy it should close Lowell Park, a 300-acre wooded nature preserve along the banks of the river. But 15-year-old Dutch Reagan thought otherwise. Having suddenly sprouted into a tall and strapping youngster who was, not incidentally, unbeatable in a swimming race, he believed that what the park needed was a dependable lifeguard. Himself, for example. He got the job — seven days a week (except when it rained) and, in the hottest weather, up to 12 hours a day — for $18 a week and all the nickel root beers and 10-cent hamburgers he wanted. No one drowned on this boy’s watch. Over seven summers at Lowell Park, young Dutch Reagan pulled 77 swimmers to safety, each rescue, at his father’s suggestion, duly notched into an old log.

Fifty-five years later, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the man that Dutch grew into, went on watch again, becoming the 40th President of the United States. While the stakes — life and death — were similar to Mr. Reagan’s youthful mission at the river, the new stakes were on the grandest scale imaginable. Threatened by nuclear Armageddon in the deep freeze of the Cold War, struggling in the vortex of a plummeting economy, the American nation in 1981 was gripped by a palpable lack of purpose and confidence, teetering on the brink of decline. And then Ronald Reagan, who died yesterday at the age of 93 at his home in California, transformed the age.

Propelled by an indomitable optimism, inspired by a vision of a world free from ideological tyranny, nuclear arms and trade barriers, guided by belief in smaller government, lower taxes, a strong defense and a fierce and unflagging determination to defeat the Communist menace to free men, Mr. Reagan changed his era from one of decline into one of ascendancy. His presidency stands as nothing less than a turning point in the course of the nation’s history.

He understood the inherent weakness of Marxist economics — namely its inability to compete with free markets - and he recognized that the Soviet Union and its vassal states were stretched to the point of collapse and dissolution by an arms race they could never win. He understood the boundless potential of markets freed from heavy tax rates and insidious inflation, and the nation’s economy burgeoned into an era of vast peacetime expansion. When he came into office, the Soviet Empire was on the march around the globe; he left it in humiliating retreat. When he came into office, the marginal tax rate stood at a stifling 70 percent; when he left office it had been reduced to 33 percent.

Margaret Thatcher best summed up his accomplishments: “When we attempt an overall survey of President Reagan’s term of office,” the former British Prime Minister wrote in National Review more than a decade ago, “covering events both foreign and domestic, one thing stands out. It is that he has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set about to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat—and he succeeded.”

The nation, and free men and women everywhere, mourn.

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