Today is the 98th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan and I wanted to be the first to wish my friends and readers a Happy Reagan Day!
Twenty-eight years after President Reagan took the oath of office (without stumbling over the words), he remains an iconic figure among conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans -- and others of all political stripes. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz even named his book about the last 34 years The Age of Reagan. Candidate Barack Obama referred to Reagan as a transformative figure in American history. Two years before he was elected President himself, Obama said on NBC's Meet the Press:
Ronald Reagan was a very successful president, even though I did not agree with him on many issues, partly because at the end of his presidency, people, I think, said, “You know what? We can regain our greatness. Individual responsibility and personal responsibility are important.” And they transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.Despite liberal caricatures aimed at defining Ronald Reagan as (in Clark Clifford's words) "an amiable dunce" and a shoot-from-the-hip, warmongering cowboy, the 40th President was, in fact, a widely-read, innately intelligent, peace-loving man who was confident in his beliefs and had a preternatural ability to communicate with people of all strata of society. Moreover, as his diaries indicate, he was concerned above all with maintaining peace and reducing the stock of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who helped edit Reagan's diaries, mentioned this as a major part of the Gipper's legacy in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on February 5; he also pointed out that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, is the most-visited of all the presidential libraries in the country. To know the reason, check out the videos I posted here a year ago today.
There are so many fine and inspiring things that Ronald Reagan said during his long lifetime, and I would like to point out most of them, but I'll limit myself on this occasion to what he said at the outset of his interview with Reason magazine, which was published in July 1975.
The first paragraph has been widely quoted:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.The second paragraph shows that then-ex-Governor Reagan had a nuanced understanding of the various branches of libertarianism (or libertarian-conservatism):
Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.I don't know about you, but I hear some Hobbes and Locke in that statement.
His response to the second-to-last question ("Are there any particular books or authors or economists that have been influential in terms of your intellectual development?") suggest what should be required reading for any president, legislator, or candidate for public office:
Oh, it would be hard for me to pinpoint anything in that category. I’m an inveterate reader. Bastiat and von Mises, and Hayek and Hazlitt–I’m one for the classical economists....It says a lot about Ronald Reagan's reach (as a political leader and as a human being) that he is featured, if briefly, in a hagiographic biopic about a quintessentially liberal political icon, Harvey Milk.
In Gus van Sant's Oscar®-nominated film, Milk, Reagan is mentioned and pictured as an opponent of the direly anti-gay Proposition 6, the so-called "Briggs Amendment" that would have, if passed, instituted a witch hunt to purge the government schools of gay teachers and anyone who offered support to gay teachers.
Reagan's opposition -- and making common cause with "San Francisco liberals" like Milk -- was crucial in defeating this crazy initiative. What's more, he made his opposition known at a time (1978) when being in favor of equal rights for all Americans would not help him politically. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
For these and for numerous other reasons, rather than waiting to subsume his memory on the omnibus President's Day two weeks hence, we celebrate today, February 6, as Ronald Reagan Day.
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