In Shakespeare's version, the English King Henry V rallies his badly outnumbered, ragtag troops against the flower of French chivalry before the battle of Agincourt with the reminder that in later years: "Gentlemen in England now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhood's cheap whiles any speaks, that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day."
But now, the accolades come rolling in for Ronald Reagan from journalists and politicians who, when Reagan's battles were raging, were either bystanders or his opponents. Rather than holding their manhood cheap, they step forward to share in the glory. As one of Reagan's many foot soldiers from the old days, I started to grumble to myself, then to my wife about these people who weren't there when it mattered.
I was about to get on the phone with some fellow old-timers to continue my grumbling, when I suddenly realized how un-Reaganite I was being. I actually said out loud to myself: "Blankley, have you learned nothing from the old man in four decades?" Reagan would have been delighted that they were now on board. He was always prepared to lead anyone who wanted to follow. I realized that there is a word for later gaining the support of those who opposed or stood by during the battle. It's called victory.
More to the point, the battle didn't end on Jan. 20, 1989. It did matter what we did between 1966 and 1989. But it continues to matter in 2004. And, in fact, that battle is still raging. Great men not only affect their own time, but in death remain a force to be reckoned with and fought over. We are seeing the opening round of that continuing struggle.
As a young White House staffer in 1983, I had a similar mission over another great dead man. I was assigned the job of working the media to stake our claim on George Orwell for the Right. We expected that the arrival of the date 1984 the title of his most famous book would unleash a battle between the Left and the Right for possession of the iconic political writer's fundamental commitment. Both Left and Right found evidence in his public writings, private letters and comments to support each claim. But George Orwell turned out to be too big to fit into one category.
I suspect the same may be true of Ronald Reagan. While he was heart, soul and mind a conservative and on an analytical basis always will be a conservative it is instructive to contemplate on the phenomenon of so many non-conservatives beginning to grab a piece of him.
Of course there are many motives for saying nice things about him this week. For some it will be simple, sincere and honest reflection on a fine life. For some it will be the almost irresistible human instinct to aggrandize one's own ego by identifying with something larger than one's self (despite my best efforts at restraint, I plead guilty).
Some of his former opponents are merely doing what all civilized people do at a death find a nice thing to say about the departed. Some cunning opponents carefully limit their compliments with the intent to minimize him. This can be seen in the statements that it was just Reagan's breezy personality that accounted for his success not the ideas he championed and they opposed. A few partisan sorts are trying to build up Reagan in order to, they hope, belittle George Bush.
This is all to be expected. But what are we to make of former opponents who speak with sincere appreciation of his foreign policy style and substance? Ronald Reagan was a genuine radical in foreign policy. He broke with all his Cold-War predecessors who sought stability in U.S./Soviet relations. He sought destabilization and victory and he gained it. We have heard, this week, increasing admiration from leading people who opposed him at the time on this matter. They would not consider themselves conservatives even today. But they would consider themselves Reaganites at least on foreign policy methods. This, of course, has great implications for the war on terror.
We have also heard major media figures admire and embrace Reagan's vision of United States as a religious nation. A managing editor of a famously unconservative major national news magazine has said, it is simply foolish and ahistoric to deny the correctness of Reagan's vision on this matter.
When important non-conservatives start embracing big pieces of Reaganism while not thinking of themselves as conservative, something historic may be happening. I can imagine a time when some future young Republican White House staffer may be assigned the job of making sure that the voters remember that Reagan was at heart a conservative Republican even as the opposition in that future campaign may be claiming Reagan as their own. That, too, would be victory.