Jewish World Review June 8, 2004 / 19 Sivan, 5764
Yes, that was his job
By Mark Steyn
All true, but not what matters. Even politics attracts its share of optimistic, likeable men, and most of them leave no trace – like Britain’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan, a perfect example of the defeatism of western leadership in the 1970s. It was the era of “détente”, a word barely remembered now, which is just as well, as it reflects poorly on us: the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the free world had decided that the unfree world was not a prison ruled by a murderous ideology that had to be defeated but merely an alternative lifestyle that had to be accommodated. Under cover of “détente”, the Soviets gobbled up more and more real estate across the planet, from Ethiopia to Grenada. Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the usual suspects who subscribed to this grubby evasion – Helmut Schmidt, Pierre Trudeau, Francois Mitterand – but most of the so-called “conservatives”, too – Ted Heath, Giscard d’Estaing, Gerald Ford.
Unlike these men, unlike most other senior Republicans, Ronald Reagan saw Soviet Communism for what it was: a great evil. Millions of Europeans across half a continent from Poland to Bulgaria, Slovenia to Latvia live in freedom today because he acknowledged that simple truth when the rest of the political class was tying itself in knots trying to pretend otherwise. That’s what counts. He brought down the “evil empire”, and all the rest is fine print.
At the time, the charm and the smile got less credit from the intelligentsia, confirming their belief that he was a dunce who’d plunge us into Armageddon. Everything you need to know about the establishment’s view of Ronald Reagan can be found on page 624 of Dutch, Edmund Morris’ weird post-modern biography. The place is Berlin, the time June 12, 1987:
Poor old Morris, the plodding, conventional, scholarly writer driven mad by 14 years spent trying to get a grip on Ronald Reagan. Most world leaders would have taken his advice: You’re at the Berlin Wall, so you have to say something about it, something profound but oblique, maybe there’s a poem on the subject ... Who cares if Frost’s is over-quoted, and a tad hard to follow for a crowd of foreigners? Who cares that it is, in fact, pro-wall - a poem in praise of walls?
Edmund Morris has described his subject as an “airhead” and concluded that it’s “like dropping a pebble in a well and hearing no splash.” Morris may not have heard the splash, but he’s still all wet: The elites were stupid about Reagan in a way that only clever people can be. Take that cheap crack: If you drop a pebble in a well and you don’t hear a splash, it may be because the well is dry but it’s just as likely it’s because the well is of surprising depth. I went out to my own well and dropped a pebble: I heard no splash, yet the well supplies exquisite translucent water to my home.
But then I suspect it’s a long while since Morris dropped an actual pebble in an actual well: As with walls, his taste runs instinctively to the metaphorical. Reagan looked at the Berlin Wall and saw not a poem-quoting opportunity but prison bars.
I once discussed Irving Berlin, composer of “God Bless America”, with his friend and fellow songwriter Jule Styne, and Jule put it best: “It’s easy to be clever. But the really clever thing is to be simple.” At the Berlin Wall that day, it would have been easy to be clever, as all those ’70s detente sophisticates would have been. And who would have remembered a word they said? Like Irving Berlin with “God Bless America”, only Reagan could have stood there and declared without embarrassment:
- and two years later the wall was, indeed, torn down. Ronald Reagan was straightforward and true and said it for everybody - which is why his “rhetorical opportunity missed” is remembered by millions of grateful Eastern Europeans. The really clever thing is to have the confidence to say it in four monosyllables.
Reagan was an American archetype, and just the bare bones of his curriculum vitae capture the possibilities of his country: in the Twenties, a lifeguard at a local swimming hole who saved over 70 lives; in the Thirties, a radio sports announcer; in the Forties, a Warner Brothers leading man ...and finally one of the two most significant presidents of the American century. Unusually for the commander in chief, Reagan’s was a full, varied American life, of which the presidency was the mere culmination.
“The Great Communicator” was effective because what he was communicating was self-evident to all but our decayed elites: “We are a nation that has a government - not the other way around.” And at the end of a grim, grey decade - Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, Iranian hostages – Americans decided they wanted a President who looked like the nation, not like its failed government. Thanks to his clarity, around the world, governments that had nations have been replaced by nations that have governments. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries are now members of Nato, with free markets and freely elected parliaments.
One man who understood was Yakob Ravin, a Ukrainian émigré who in the summer of 1997 happened to be strolling with his grandson in Armand Hammer Park near Reagan’s California home. They happened to see the former President, out taking a walk. Mr Ravin went over and asked if he could take a picture of the boy and the President. When they got back home to Ohio, it appeared in the local newspaper, The Toledo Blade.
Ronald Reagan was three years into the decade-long twilight of his illness, and unable to recognize most of his colleagues from the Washington days. But Mr Ravin wanted to express his appreciation. “Mr President,” he said, “thank you for everything you did for the Jewish people, for Soviet people, to destroy the Communist empire.”
And somewhere deep within there was a flicker of recognition. “Yes,” said the old man, “that is my job.”
Yes, that was his job.
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© 2004, Mark Steyn