Thursday, March 22, 2012

When Character Was King

Published 2001

I just finished reading Peggy Noonan's terrific book When Character was King about Ronald Reagan.  Peggy was a speech writer in the Reagan White House.  She is an incredible woman who combines of a tough mind and a tender heart.  I don't like Peggy Noonan;  I love this woman!

Her book is full of wonderful revelations about Reagan.  She writes, for example about Reagan's love for his ranch.  It is quite evident that Reagan "cultivated his garden" just as Voltaire would have wished (see earlier post "Voltaire -- Conservative of the Enlightenment 3/3/12)).  Noonan writes, "All those vacations past, during then eighties, when you heard on the news, 'The president cleared brush today,' that's what he was doing.  I was a writer at CBS then and after a few years I thought, Isn't he done yet? How the heck much brush is there?  And when you see it you realise: 688 acres."

Reagan was an environmentalist in much the same way as Teddy Roosevelt (see earlier post Conservatism and the Environment 2/7/12).  "He loved the beauty of all living things, of all things that grew in the soil and flew in the air and slithered and scrambled, all the wildlife, even homely old cows and burros...Reagan thought like his mother: God made them.  He was by nature a conservationist because he believed what she told him: Man was made in God's image and given dominion over the natural things and it was a sin to destroy them or ignore them or dirty the world or be wasteful.  Man had dominion, and if he didn't use it wisely or kindly or generously, he wasn't much of a man.

He hated crudity, cruelty, selfishness and waste, thought the land is our paternity, the physical thing we leave to the next generations.  So being cruel to nature was, to him -- like setting fire to a cathedral."  http:/

Reagan in London (Photo James Hooper)

She illuminates Reagan's remarkable sense of humor, perhaps most on display after those grim days following his assassination.  Just before the operation "he looked up at the doctors and said, 'I just hope you're all Republicans.'  And a doctor, in a moment of great grace, said, 'Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans.'"  After the operation a hospital nurse held his hand and Reagan asked, "Does Nancy know about us?"  This was genuine wit without the benefit of any speechwriters or tele-prompters.
Commander K. at the Ronald Reagan Library
Simi Valley, CA
Nor does Noonan attempt to gloss over Reagan's personal or political faults.  He had a troubled relations with his children and the Iran/Contra scandal was a huge embarrassment where the Iranians were able to exploit his well-intentioned desire to free the hostages.

She does celebrate his triumphs.  The 1970's were a catastrophic decade with many parallels to our current predicament.  During the Carter administration inflation was soaring, unemployment was rising and the economy was stagnant.  During the Reagan administration, the US economy grew by one third in size and all income groups rose.  When he assumed office, the unemployment rate was 7.4%, when he left it was 5.4%. The Dow Jones average climbed from below 800 at his inauguration to more than 2,400 by the end of his second term.

His principled articulation of the Reagan doctrine, which insisted that USA would stand with those hungering for freedom throughout the world, would help tip the scales during the cold war.  Occupants of the gulag, such as Natan Sharansky, took heart when Reagan call the Soviet Union an "evil empire."  His utter rejection of the MAD (Mutually assured destruction), which had been conventional wisdom for US strategic thinking for decades, was absolutely a turning point in our history.  His refusal to give up on SDI ("Star Wars' defence") scared the hell out of Gorbachev and helped bankrupt the Soviets.  He famously demanded that they "tear down that wall" and they did.

Reagan presided over a period of peace, growth and prosperity.  We often forget how viciously he was attacked and ridiculed during those times.  The distinguished historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said in 1982, "those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink are wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves."

Reagan accomplished all this with a measure of grace and dignity which seems to be fundamentally lacking in all the political options of our own day.

Today we confront a situation that is not totally unlike that of 1979.  We have a failed Democratic administration.  We have economic turmoil and high unemployment.  We have a costly destabilizing invasion of Afghanistan -- for which we cannot even blame on the Soviets!

The big unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question about the 2016 is simply this:  Do any have the character to lead the USA out of the misery of our own times in the way that Reagan led this country out of the despair of the Carter years?


This from 2009 is almost an hour, but has some great bits.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on

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