The 'Amazing and Mysterious Life' of Ronald Reagan

The 'Amazing and Mysterious Life' of Ronald Reagan

Mini Teaser: Mr. Reagan was a simple man with simple straightforward ideas. But he pursued a subtle and complex foreign policy. Maybe we missed something. Where was the rest of him?

by Author(s): Josef Joffe

Few modern American presidents had that gift; in the 20th century, only the two Roosevelts and Kennedy come to mind. Ronald Reagan, though dismissed by Europeans as a second-rate actor and fondler of cue cards, possessed that magic faculty that separates run-of-the mill politicos from history-molding leaders. "I didn't understand", recalls Time's Joe Klein, "how truly monumental, and morally important, Reagan's anti-communism was until I visited the Soviet Union in 1987." He continues with a seemingly trivial vignette. Attending the Bolshoi Ballet, he was nudged by his minder: "'Ronald Reagan. Evil empire', he whispered with dramatic intensity and shot a glance toward his lap where he had hidden two enthusiastic thumbs up. 'Yes!'"

When an American president manages to pluck the soul strings of those who have been raised to fear and despise what he represents, he surely deserves the honorific 'great.'

Let us not in the end ignore a final factor that has flummoxed believers and belittlers alike. Both camps have portrayed Reagan as a simple, one-dimensional soul--as heroic slayer of Bolshevik dragons or as mean-spirited Cold Warrior. Had he been just one or the other, he would not have entered history as a great president. Truly simpleminded men do not change; they remain slaves to their prejudices. Yet Ronald Reagan did change, even though he loved to glory in his sancta simplicitas by proclaiming: "There are simple answers to many of our problems--simple but hard."

Assume Reagan had remained Reagan in his second term. Assume that he had stuck to his iron-fisted anti-communism, that he had cornered and humiliated Gorbachev at every twist and turn. Imagine that he had not offered wholesale cuts in strategic and intermediate-range weapons, overtures that, in 1987, culminated in a complete ban on ss-20s, cruise missiles and Pershings. Posit, finally, a relentlessly fire-breathing Ronald Reagan instead of the genial summiteer who would flatter and embrace Gorbachev, allowing him to bask at home in the warm glow of recognition abroad. Would the general-secretary have released Andrei Sakharov in 1986? Would he have proclaimed glasnost in 1987 or withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1987? Or would Gorbachev have come out fighting like a wounded animal?

The point here is not to preach the wondrous effects of detente Uber alles, but to stress Reagan's uncanny sense for timing. Had he not raised taxes in 1982 and 1983, turning against his own revolution? And thus with the Soviet Union. He had made his point with a full-court press, and now was the time to temper strength with generosity. Yes, he did practice detente, but on his own terms and at his own time, not for its own sake. To know when to stop and to exchange the mailed fist for a helping hand is surely an element of what the Greeks called phronesis, prudence or political wisdom. Is this what "cowboys" do, as the derogatory epithet has it? Come to think of it, this is precisely the code of the West: Fight for what is right, don't shoot the unarmed, assist the weak, don't gloat over the fallen, offer magnanimity in victory.

Reagan had been out of office for ten months when the Berlin Wall fell. Two years later, the Soviet Empire died a peaceful death during the watch of his former vice-president, George H. W. Bush. Still, the honor for this singular achievement must go to Ronald Reagan. How did he pull it off? His biographer Edmund Morris recalls a conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, in which the latter spoke about Reagan's "balance." He used the Russian word ravnovesie "in its wider sense, of psychological equilibrium." Morris muses that Reagan "telegraphed a larger force that came of a lifetime of no self-doubt." Perhaps the key to Reagan's "amazing and mysterious life" is as simple and complicated as this most fitting of epitaphs.

Essay Types: Essay