July 31, 2004
Reagan, Unto EternityBy Christopher Schweickert
Part 1: June 5, 2004
My sister Kelsey and I pulled into the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Although this visit was going to be short, it had been some time in planning. We were going to attend an event in Long Beach later that day, but we'd figured that we could squeeze in a few minutes at the Library.
As we pulled up just past noon, we saw some news trucks in the parking lot. We didn't know what they were for but shrugged them off, figuring that some important person was probably going to be speaking that day.
Just before we entered the library, we stopped by the bronze statute of Reagan to snap a couple of pictures. We'd been too young to catch most of the action during his presidential campaigns. Neither of us had ever met him in person. We could at least have a picture by his statue.
Moving swiftly through the Library, we were met by an outstanding collection of memorabilia. In one exhibit, they've recreated the Oval Office. We stopped for a picture by Reagan's '66 convertible campaign Mustang. (Its much younger brother, ours for a day, was sitting out in the parking lot.) A thrill shot through me as I walked around a corner and saw and heard President Reagan demanding boldly, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' In the dramatic time warp that only history can provide, a chunk of the real torn—down wall is out back. Tail Number 27000 is out front. It flew Reagan to Reykjavik in 1986, where the power of 'No' backed up by the courage to walk sounded the death knell for the Soviet bullies. Gorbachev would later identify this moment as the point when he realized that the jig was up — that this man was different than the others. The same airplane carried Reagan to Berlin a year later for 'Tear down this wall.' Reagan had done what former leaders couldn't. He'd called them on it. Peace was prevailing, through strength.
We quickly came to the conclusion that this was a place worth savoring. We liked the quiet, tasteful, contemplative presentation. We would have to come back later with the rest of the family. Stopping by the gift shop for a few knick—knacks, we hurried off down the Presidential Drive and onto the 118 towards LA, as they say down the there.
We didn't know it, but half an hour later, President Reagan passed quietly into the eternal sunrise.
I hadn't heard the news. At the event, coincidentally, another lawyer and I shared musings about how unexpected Providential events can shape elections. We wondered what God had in store for us for 2004.
That evening at LAX, the rental car agent saw our Reagan Library shopping bag and told us that Reagan had died.
It was unbelievable for a few seconds. Reagan gone! He'd been there all my life.
I was overcome. First by grief: but also by the man's greatness. A decade of his absence from public life had been contrasted against the day's quick refresher at the library, and it was all flooding back in a huge way. The Berlin wall. The fall of communism. SDI. The Communists. The liberals. Carter and the misery index. Carter's 70% tax rate. The biggest boom in American history. The man's unwavering moral clarity. As we worked our way to our flight, I don't know if I have ever been so dispossessed of myself in public.
* * *
As we dry our tears and raise our flags back to full—staff, it is worthwhile to consider what the past month has brought.
Being little more than a pesky one—year—old when Ronald Reagan became President, I remember very little about the man. But I do remember a little. And before time started to claim these recollections, I wanted to jot down my personal notes about what I've observed during the first month of honor, tribute and mourning. Documentation is valuable because memory fades — and sometimes, even changes — with each passing day.
Ronald Reagan is no longer with us. He finished his race. He is history. All we can do is remember. And what is important now, as Peggy Noonan has noted, is that we continue to speak of the meaning of his leadership.
Part 2 : The Memory of Reagan's Work
History is usually written by the victors, and we are at the critical stage when the memory of Reagan is being constructed and protected — by us. The President's detractors have been squelched for a time, but they will rise again. They, too, have been overcome by the man's greatness. They were forced to observe, for a short time, civilization's tradition of respect for the dead. Deep down in the innermost recesses of their hearts, I suppose that some of them admit that things are really better today because Reagan was right. But they can't be trusted. They've never been candid about the painful truth that, when it came to peace through strength, they were wrong, and Reagan was right. They showed during the 80's, and during the Clinton years, a desperate lust for power that will drive them to do anything. We are seeing first—hand the dangerous, underhanded revisionism so typical of a stubbornly na�ve movement seeking to minimize a devastating defeat. The air is becoming rife with naked conclusion.
But if we do our best to recount the truth we know about Reagan, perhaps we'll have done our part to see that this great man rests in peace. We should continue to speak of the meaning of his leadership. I don't think that during the 1980's we realized the half of how great Reagan's work was. We hadn't seen all the fruits yet — or even very many of them. Now, and only now, do we have some perspective. The Berlin wall has fallen. The 1990's have boomed. We didn't fully appreciate how good he was until he was gone. So as our Founders said 226 years ago yesterday: Let the facts be submitted to a candid world.
The Wall Street Journal has done its part. In an excellent June 7, 2004 editorial titled The Reagan Restoration, the Journal notes how quickly we forget how controversial Reagan's policies were. This is true. To hear the liberals scream when he uttered the words 'Evil Empire' back in 1983, you'd have thought that they almost felt threatened somehow.
And while some have made the transformation from liberal to conservative, the left hasn't changed. It would like to deny Reagan something — to take away what is justly his. Rush Limbaugh observed that the leftist media is furious that 20 years of intensely revisionist history have not put even a dent in the near—universal acknowledgment of Reagan's greatness. And the fury spills over. The paranoid East Coast print media, sensing the grave threat lest anyone start to draw connections between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, quickly realized the need to staunch the bleeding and almost immediately began strenuously pointing out that Bush really has nothing at all in common with his predecessor, other than perhaps that silly mutual propensity to wear cowboy hats for pictures. If the two men were so dissimilar you'd think that there would be no need for such strenuous denials. Again, it almost seems someone feels a bit threatened.
We can protect Reagan's well—deserved memory by summoning our recollections about the truth.
I don't have many personal Reagan experiences to cite. I do remember him being President. I remember seeing him talk on TV.
I do, of course, have some memories from afterwards. I distinctly remember seeing him leave after the elder Bush's inauguration. I recall a lot of his 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention. And I found his autobiography easy reading, and interesting too, and I read it more than once. The more I learned about the man, the more I understood the reality of his greatness. And I remember the day when Dad came home and brought us the news that Reagan had gotten diagnosed with the cruel disease known as Alzheimer's, and that the former President had written that he was beginning the journey that would lead him into the sunset of his life. And we all appreciated the poignant timing of that announcement — right before the historic 1994 elections. Other than that, my specific Reagan memories are not many.
But I do have two distinct personal recollections from the seismic decade over which Reagan presided.
The first is fear, countered by confidence. I knew that there was an evil, cruel country out there that wanted us by the throat. I read several books on the KGB and the Cold War. I found them terrifying. I knew that Reagan wanted to build up our military, and I liked that a lot. I remember running to the window or outside to see the big, loud helicopters that used to pass overhead nearly every day. And when the Berlin wall came tumbling down, I knew what it meant, and it was a big relief and a day of celebration. Peace was prevailing, through strength.
The other thing I remember from the 80's is that a lot of friends who weren't so well off to start with got pretty comfortable. And this boom continued, and we feel it today more than ever. There's been give and take, but the liberals still haven't gotten their way, and we're way closer to Reagan's 28% tax bracket than Carter's 70%. (Incidentally, most people I talk with today, of any age, have no idea that the top marginal bracket was 70% when Carter got kicked out.)
If you measure greatness by the continuing impact of a man, with Reagan, it's enormous. Today, I and my fellow 24—year—olds can pretty much go out and, with a little work, buy nearly any car, start nearly any business, and achieve our dreams — all largely unhindered by government. And as we're cruising down the road in that sleek convertible BMW being a part of all this prosperity, we forget something even more important: we simply don't have to worry that a nuke is going to explode overhead and ruin our sunny day. Peace has been won, for us, through a clear moral vision of judicious strength.
There are few greater contrasts than Reagan and Carter. These two men and their administrations represent their respective movements well. They are a worthwhile and intriguing comparative study.
The left would rather move us down. It depends upon the force of repression. It has no power but that which is pried from the hands of you and me. In the name of the common good, it wants most of your money for itself — and then turns around and calls the 80's 'greedy.' It pays you to stay low — to become dependent on its miserable ability to provide. It allows conservation to destroy productivity. It doesn't care if you have to wait in long gas lines. It worships Marx and his failed scheme. It denies the Creator His rightful place of authority by ownership, and complains when we look to the Most High (Psalm 91:9) for guidance. It clings to a sad, bizarre philosophy of government — even while now claiming that it always knew that this sad, bizarre philosophy was destined for the ash heap of history. In the name of helping people, it strips the individual of his liberty and wants you and me to become the slaves of a vapid collective. It trusts union bosses more than you or me. It dogmatically demands the right to determine the weightiest beginning— and end—of—life ethical issues. It abhors and rejects the stability of the traditional family. It preaches tolerance and choice but religiously designates a single exclusive orthodoxy. It pits classes of Americans against each other in a destructive war of envy. It commands the military to slavishly do its bidding for social experiments in far—flung corners of the globe, while denying it the support of the material and decisive moral clarity so necessary to find purpose and accomplishment. It knows history, and it understands tyranny. It values power over productivity. It needs a repressed population that is subjugated to the whims of an elite. It would rather cooperate with evil than conquer it, even when that evil has about it a ferociously religious lust for dominance.
Reagan came to us at one of our worst low points and beat the left because he used the force of ideas to appeal to something higher. He said that we could conquer evil, through strength. He seized the grim challenges of a dismal moment and brought them to the engaging arena of good versus evil, appealing to the powerful natural desire for freedom that the Creator has put in each one of us. He promised each of us liberty. He delivered, and with that liberty we achieved productivity. He told us that strength is never more admirable than when exercised with restraint. History is replete with examples of dictators who forced the grim and the low upon their subjects. For the first time in long time, Reagan ignited a higher aspiration. He stood up and assured us in a steady voice that we could do better: that we weren't sentenced to the destiny of history, but that we could write history. And he was right. With the force of higher ideals, he broke through the left's grim, imprisoning repression of the ugly 1970's, and shattered their cruel tyranny of ever—lower expectations. He freed us from the grip of fear, anger and guilt that had been laid upon us. He lifted us up.
And this terrified the left, and they couldn't do anything about it — because he'd captured our hearts with the truth.
He was the man that God sent us to stand alone in the gap, for such a time as this. He had started, as Lt. Col. Oliver North put it, singing the song of the nightingale; and once the other nightingales heard it, the song spread and could not be stopped.
Part 3 — Reagan the Man: 1911 Through 2004
I didn't get a lot of work done the week after Reagan died, and I watched my fair share of FOX News and C—Span. When I saw Nancy put her head down on that casket, I about lost it again. The man had been a faithful companion to our country. He led us out of one of our darkest times into one of our brightest.
During the trip out there and back, I pondered what made Reagan the man so great. I read much of the recently published book, Reagan: In His Own Hand. While it is a good read, its most interesting quote is not something that Ronald Reagan said, but an insight that Nancy shared. She said that Ronnie didn't come up with any new ideas when he was President. He'd already worked them all out beforehand. In other words, once he got in, he was just running the playbook. George Shultz observed the same thing: 'he started with ideas that he had thought through deeply, even before he was president.' This is how he led. This, to me, is fascinating. It shows the consistency that connects a person's life from start to finish. It reaffirms the causal sowing—reaping relationship.
I am captivated to see how the experiences of Reagan's early life shaped him for what he met later. I know very little about Reagan's formative years and decisions and would like to learn more about them. We do, however, know something about how the consequences of these ideas started breaking into the open as he began to battle the left.
Each of Reagan's successively greater challenges could well be called a fulfilling end in and of itself. You could've called it a full life after simply having accomplished his fine work in communication — or after putting in those hard efforts to help the working man. When Reagan went further and battled the Hollywood Communists, most of us would have said that it was probably the great work of his life. We would have said the same again about his tenure as California's chief executive.
But each of these experiences wound up being just warm—up acts to the titanic fights of his presidency. Each honed him for the real challenge. God was preparing him for us. He would later take on the biggest enemies of our day: the American left, and the Soviet Communists. And he'd win.
I think that Reagan moved on from the smaller experiences not because he desired to get away from them, but because he had the courage to do well in and through them. There is in Reagan's life a clear relationship between small and great, between now and next. His courage was bigger than himself. He possessed the rare understanding that strength becomes beautiful only within the context of restraint. He'd been sent to daunting proving grounds, and he came away successful. Battles that most would fairly have characterized as the central work of a life became merely a prelude to the magnitude that would follow. He chose his priorities well, and became one of a few truly great presidents.
Contrast this heft and meaning (Peggy Noonan's words) with the town of Washington D.C. which, although a nice place to visit filled with many wonderful people fighting the great fight, is comprised to such a great extent of the representation of substance elsewhere, that it is thereby quite possibly the most vacant spot anywhere in America, and Reagan's greatness is made even more obvious.
I went there to add one to the numbers of those paying respects to a great man. And I was grateful for the chance to do it. It was an honor to be able to go and see, with my own eyes, President Reagan lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, surrounded by an awed silence and a full honor guard. It was worth all five hours in line, and it was an experience I'll never forget. Ilya Shapiro describes it well in his article, A Nation Turned its Lonely Eyes (and Sore Feet) to Him. Remembering Reagan's respect for the Oval Office, and trying not to think about the scar permanently burned into our nation by his second successor, I wore a suit.
When Ronald Reagan came down the steps of the Capitol for the very last time ever on Friday the 11th of June 2004 amidst military escort and a gravely measured, impeccably performed rendition of Hail to the Chief, I watched from about 200 feet away. It was the most solemn thing I've ever seen in my life. There was not a trace of hurry. The somber sun of Wednesday had been replaced by clouds. Just as they brought him out, it began to mist gently. Someone observed that Heaven was crying.
Later that day at Arlington National Cemetery, I read Psalm 91:14—16. 'Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.'
* * *
This time of mourning has been good. We are more complete. I appreciated the reflection. I've looked at those half—staff flags a lot, and thought of Reagan every time.
I bought a 2004 calendar when I was at the Reagan Library on June 5th. For the month of June, it has a big picture of his 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech. It's on the wall of my office, and it's going to stay open to June 2004 for a long time.
Now, we've long ended our month of mourning. We raised our flags to full—staff. We returned to the present, where Ronnie's vision of freedom is still every bit as true as it was when he came up with it more than half a century ago. America will go forward into the sunrise. We remain confident in Reagan's charge of optimism, strength and moral clarity. We'll be productive. We'll exercise strength with restraint. We'll go and win one for the Gipper.
As President Bush observed at the memorial service, when we lost President Reagan, we also lost a few of our best days.
But better ones lie ahead, if we can remember and follow the great vision and courage of our departed leader.
May we never forget. When was the last time that you read the 'Tear down this wall' speech?
Christopher Schweickert is an attorney in Walnut Creek, California
Notable Reagan quotations
'There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.'
'There's no question I am an idealist, which is another way of saying I am an American."
"Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement..."
"Here's my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose."
"Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book."
"The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so."
'How do you tell a Communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti—Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin.'
Answering a reporter's question asking him if he accepted any responsibility for the recession: 'Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.'
Don't ever worry that I'll forget the stripes on my back that I got from the Hollywood Communists.
'I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I've always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride —— the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.'
'When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.'
'My fellow citizens — those of you here in this hall and those of you at home — I want you to know that I have always had the highest respect for you, for your common sense and intelligence and for your decency. I have always believed in you and in what you could accomplish for yourselves and for others.
'And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way.
'My fondest hope for each one of you — and especially for the young people here — is that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism. May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here.
'May all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never lose your natural, God—given optimism.
'And finally, my fellow Americans, may every dawn be a great new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city upon a hill.'
February 6 — Reagan Day in California
Copyright (c) Christopher Schweickert