The Lasting Leadership of Ronald Reagan

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The Lasting Leadership of Ronald Reagan

March 16, 2001 16 min read
The Honorable Jesse Helms
Visiting Fellow

I deeply appreciate your warm welcome, and I'm especially grateful to Ed Feulner and Mark Burson and all the other great folks at The Heritage Foundation and the Ronald Reagan Foundation. You are doing so much to keep the Reagan legacy alive. It's an honor to be with you today as we prepare to celebrate the christening of the United States Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan.

Of one thing I'm certain: President Reagan would be so pleased--but also humbled--if he could be with us today. This very old friend of his is grateful--and humbled--that you invited me to help assist in paying our loving respect to the man that we all know to be the greatest 20th century President of the United States--and indeed, one of the greatest Presidents in America's history.

I would be willing to wager that everyone here today remembers the time when we first met that handsome, reserved, smiling gentleman whom we would later thank the Lord for his having been elected--twice--President of the United States. In my own case, our first meeting seemed pleasant but unremarkable. I was, as I recall, executive vice president of a television station in Raleigh. Some time earlier, WRAL-Television had become, as I recall, the second TV station in the country to begin televised editorials.

When that smiling, soft-spoken, likable youngish gentleman stopped by WRAL, I instantly recognized him as "the movie star." He knew that I was delighted that he had stopped by. We talked awhile about Hollywood and the media and editorializing and--of course--politics. He had known when he stopped by that I had worked for awhile in Washington for a conservative Senator from North Carolina who died in office less than three years after being elected to it.

He suggested at the outset that I call him "Ron," not "Mr. Reagan." We agreed to first-name each other, and out of the blue, with that inimitable smile and those twinkling eyes, he asked: "Are you going to run for office some day?"

I said, "Nope" but that I sure hoped he would.

He hesitated a moment, then said, "I'm thinking about it." Well, thank the Lord he did more than think about it. And, as Paul Harvey might say, "Now you know that the rest of the story is beginning to emerge."

Ron Reagan did run for public office soon thereafter. In 1966, he was elected Governor of California. We kept in touch. And in 1972, when I ran for the U.S. Senate knowing that I would not be elected, he supported me and even did a TV ad for my Senate campaign.

So there we were, a widely known Governor of California and I, the first Republican ever elected to the United States Senate by the people of North Carolina. The liberal media were already criticizing the Governor of California for being "too conservative." They were chuckling about how I would be a one-term Senator because I was one of those right-wing nuts. Ron Reagan, they said, would be a one-termer because, as they frequently sneered, "Reagan is just an actor." Well, he showed them.

I watched the career of Ronald Reagan blossom, just as you did. Then came the Nixon disaster and Jerry Ford's being elevated from appointed Vice President to the presidency, and his subsequent candidacy for election to the presidency. Ronald Reagan ran against Ford in that race.

Now, taking on a sitting President of one's own party is no easy task, but Ronald Reagan gave it his best shot. Yet in that 1976 campaign, Ron was in rough shape coming into the North Carolina primary after having lost five consecutive primaries to President Ford. The media people were saying he was finished; the Ford people cranked up the pressure for Ron to get out of the race; nine of his fellow Republican governors issued a statement calling on Ron to withdraw; and even some of his own advisers were telling him to throw in the towel.

But Ronald Reagan wouldn't give up, and if he wasn't giving up, we weren't about to give up on him. Tom Ellis and the folks at the Congressional Club went all-out for Ron, putting together a travel schedule across North Carolina for him and Nancy. Dot and I campaigned with him: Nancy and Dot went East; Ron and I went West. Jimmy Stewart came to North Carolina and barnstormed the state for his friend.

Sam Donaldson was among the Washington reporters there covering the race in North Carolina. At just about every campaign stop, Sam would bellow: "Governor, Governor, Reagan! When are you getting out?" And in a ritual that would later become familiar to the American people, Ron Reagan would smile, cup his hand to his ear pretending he couldn't make out what Sam was saying, and keep on walking.

Ronald Reagan campaigned his heart out, but he left North Carolina absolutely convinced he was going to lose. But he didn't. He carried North Carolina by 52 percent to 46 percent. It was the first time in a quarter-century that a sitting President had been defeated in a primary. A few weeks later, Ron went on to Texas--and won again. The Reagan campaign was on a roll, and suddenly there was a real race on our hands.

Senator Jesse Helms speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation/
The Heritage Foundation Luncheon Celebrating the Christening of the U.S.S.
Ronald Reagan
© 2001 Chas. Geer Photography

What turned the tide in North Carolina and Texas in 1976? The answer is simple: Ronald Reagan campaigned on principles. He made clear where he stood--and North Carolina stood with him.

Prior to his North Carolina victory, a lot of self-appointed experts had been warning Ron to tone down his conservatism to make him appear more "mainstream" and thereby acceptable to middle America. That strategy lost him five states in a row, and coming into North Carolina, thank the Lord, the time had come to let Reagan be Reagan.

Ron Reagan took on the Ford-Kissinger policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Ron sensed that the American people felt that America was losing the Cold War. They saw that country after country was falling to communism, American resolve was faltering, and the Soviets were pulling ahead of us in the race for military superiority.

Ronald Reagan made his case to the American people: We should stand up for freedom, he said over and over again, instead of seeking "peaceful co-existence" with Soviet tyranny. He called for rebuilding America's defense capabilities. He declared that "peace does not come from weakness or retreat--it comes from the restoration of American military superiority."

He condemned immoral agreements such as the Helsinki Accord in which, he said, the Ford Administration had put "America's stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations...[and had given] away the freedom of millions of people--freedom that was not ours to give." He called for an end to "balance of power" diplomacy and declared that our battle with Soviet Communism was not simply a struggle between rival powers, but rather a battle between right and wrong, between good and evil.

Henry Kissinger declared that Ron was "trigger-happy" and said that Ron was "inciting hawkish audiences with his demagoguery." But the American people began responding.

At the GOP convention in Kansas City, Reagan fought to include a "Morality in Foreign Policy" plank in the Republican platform. At his insistence, and over the objections of the Ford forces, the GOP platform that year declared that, henceforth, "the goal of Republican foreign policy is the achievement of liberty under law and a just and lasting peace in the world."

The platform declared forthrightly that "we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny" and that the U.S. must not conclude agreements with the Soviets that "take away from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day gaining it"--a direct repudiation of the Helsinki Accord. And it concluded: "Honestly, openly, and with a firm conviction, we shall go forward as a united people to forge a lasting peace in the world based on our deep belief in the rights of man, the rule of law, and guidance by the hand of God."

This was a thrilling turning point in American history. Ronald Reagan didn't win the nomination that year, but his strong showing staked his claim as the frontrunner for the nomination in 1980; Ron Reagan had laid down a marker that the days of coddling Soviet tyranny were coming to an end.

So today, let me here declare that Ronald Reagan's willingness to stand up for a foreign policy based on principle not only won him the North Carolina primary--it also won the Cold War!

Success, it is said, has many fathers, and America's victory in Cold War has innumerable claims of paternity. It did not take long after the fall of the Berlin Wall before everyone in Washington began claiming to have been "on the right side" of the battle for freedom, and that back then "we all agreed" on the need to confront and defeat Soviet communism.

Hogwash. Things were not "easy" during the Cold War, and we did not "all agree."

  • The liberals howled when Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union was an "Evil Empire."

  • Their blood curdled when he declared his intention to leave Communism on the "ash heap of history."

  • They opposed his efforts to build SDI.

  • They opposed his effort to rebuild our nation's military.

  • They opposed his efforts to support freedom fighters seeking to overthrow Communist regimes in our hemisphere and around the world.

  • They fought him tooth and nail every step of the way.

As always, President Reagan put it best himself in 1992 when he addressed the Republican National Convention for the last time: "I heard those speakers at that other convention saying `We won the Cold War,'" Reagan said. "And I couldn't help wondering...just who exactly do they mean by `we'?"

My friends, it was Ronald Reagan who won the Cold War. But his victory in the Cold War was only the first of many instances in which his opponents sought to associate themselves with his successes and co-opt his ideas.

I don't think it's possible to overstate just how deeply President Reagan affected--and continues to affect--the American political landscape. The Reagan presidency was an event of seismic proportions--a shift in the tectonic plates of American politics. Ronald Reagan, it has been said, made the Clinton presidency possible. This is not to besmirch the reputation of our good friend, President Reagan, but rather to demonstrate just how fundamentally Ronald Reagan's ideas altered the ground rules of American politics.

When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, his and Hillary's very first project was their effort to nationalize American health care. It was an old-style, left-wing, big-government project--and it was a colossal failure. The American people wanted nothing to do with a return to big-government liberalism. To make sure Mr. Clinton got the message, they went to the polls in 1994, turned out the Democrat Congress, and elected a Republican majority--a stinging, personal repudiation of Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton got the message. By 1996, he was standing before a Republican Congress declaring: "We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there is not a program for every problem.... The era of big Government is over." Remember that night?

With that one statement, Bill Clinton was conceding Ronald Reagan's victory in the war of ideas; with that statement, Clinton acknowledged that, thanks to the Reagan Revolution, a Democrat President could no longer govern the nation on the basis of the Democrat orthodoxy of big-government liberalism. That orthodoxy had been repudiated, you see, by Ronald Reagan and rejected by the American people. And the only way a Democrat President could govern and expect to be re-elected was do his best to imitate Ronald Reagan.

Needless to say, Bill Clinton was no Ronald Reagan: never was and never will be. Indeed, it was against the backdrop of the dignity Ronald Reagan brought to the presidency that Bill Clinton's moral failures were so shamefully exposed. Ronald Reagan would not take his jacket off in the Oval Office; Bill Clinton could not keep his trousers on.

But Clinton did his best to steal pages from the Reagan playbook, and when the history books mention the Clinton years--after the entries on Monica Lewinsky and Marc Rich--they will note that Clinton ran a couple of successful plays from the Gipper's game plan: They will note the expansion of North American free trade to Mexico; the passage of welfare reform; the expansion of the NATO alliance to include the former "captive nations" of the Warsaw Pact. And if they are honest, they will note that each and every one of these accomplishments was lifted from the agenda of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Publicly, Clinton tried calling his approach the "Third Way." Privately, the term was "triangulation." But whatever he chose to call it, it was nothing more than a smokescreen behind which a Democrat President sought to hide the fact that he was stealing ideas from Ronald Reagan.

Today, we have finally returned to the true way forged by Ronald Reagan. We have a new President we can be proud of again--a President who is not ashamed to embrace the enduring legacy of President Reagan.

In his speech at the Reagan Library in 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush declared: "We live in the nation President Reagan restored, and the world he helped to save." It was an appropriate venue, for so much of what President Bush is seeking to accomplish for America is the continuation of the Reagan Revolution and the completion of its unfinished agenda.

At the Reagan Library, President Bush rejected isolationism as a "shortcut to approach that abandons our allies, and our ideals...[whose] result, in the long run, would be a stagnant America and a savage world." Many in the media reported this as a tactical shift to the center--an effort to distance himself away from the conservative wing of the party. Nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact, President Bush was calling on Americans to heed the call of Ronald Reagan, who exhorted us in his farewell address at the Houston Convention to reject "the new isolationists [who] claim the American people don't care about how or why we prevailed in the great defining struggle of our age...[and] who insist that our triumph is yesterday's news, part of a past that holds no lessons for the future."

But the consensus for vigorous, "distinctly American" leadership on the world stage is only the beginning of the legacy Ronald Reagan left us. Consider just some of the things we take for granted in American political life today that would never have happened were it not for the leadership of President Reagan.

For example, missile defense. In 1983, when Ronald Reagan declared America's intention to build and deploy strategic missile defenses, the liberals ridiculed it as science fiction--"Star Wars," they called it.

That was then. In 1999, after eight wasted years under Bill Clinton, Congress passed the National Missile Defense Act, mandating the deployment of missile defenses--and did so by a bipartisan, veto-proof majority. There is today a consensus in Washington on the need for a defense to protect the American people from ballistic missile attack, and President Bush has declared building and deploying missile defenses his single most important national security priority.

Or take the economy. When Ronald Reagan argued 20 years ago that the way to get the economy moving again was to cut taxes to spur economic growth, the left howled its rage. The liberal media sought to make "Reaganomics" a bad word.

That was then. Today, after two decades of the virtually uninterrupted economic expansion that Ronald Reagan set in motion, the economy is slowing down, and everyone in Washington agrees that a tax cut is needed to spur economic growth. Think about it: The Democrats want to cut taxes by $900 billion, the Republicans want to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion, and we will fight over the numbers. But there is consensus in Washington on the need for tax cuts, and no one in the political mainstream today contests the principle that cutting marginal rates is the key to economic growth. That is the legacy of Ronald Reagan at work.

Or how about "compassionate conservatism"? Ladies and gentlemen, I suggest to you that Ronald Reagan was the original "compassionate conservative." Listen to the commission President Reagan gave us in Houston nine years ago, where he called for conservatives to declare war on poverty the same way we declared war on Soviet communism. "Just as we have led the crusade for democracy beyond our shores, we have a great task to do together in our own home," President Reagan told us. "With each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity. Many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope. Still others hesitate to venture out onto the streets for fear of criminal violence. Let us pledge ourselves to a new beginning for them."

How do we do that? Start with education, President Reagan told us: "Let us apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America, so that every one of us will have the mental skills to build a better life." Or, as President Bush might say, let's make certain that "no child is left behind."

Next, President Reagan told us, we must make sure that the engine of economic growth touches every American community. "Let us harness the competitive energy that built America into rebuilding our inner cities," President Reagan said, "so that real jobs can be created for those who live there and real hope can rise out of despair." Or, as President Bush has put it, we must have "prosperity with a purpose."

And let us never forget, President Reagan declared, that the American dream must be open to every American: "Whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American; Christian or Jewish; from big cities or small towns, we are equal in the eyes of God.... In America our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about."

Ladies and gentlemen, the Reagan agenda is still our agenda today: principled American leadership on the world stage; a commitment to freedom under God as the organizing bedrock of our foreign policy; unmatched military might and concrete defenses for the American people; limited government and growth-oriented tax cuts that keep our prosperity going; and a commitment to give every one of our citizens a shot at the American dream.

Ronald Reagan's voice may have been silenced by Alzheimer's disease, but his vision and his principled leadership will forever continue speak to our future. Before he left us for that journey leading him "into the sunset of [his] life," President Reagan laid out a parting vision for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. It is a vision that I believe is shared, in the most heartfelt way, by our new President, George W. Bush.

In President Bush, we have a leader worthy of the mantle of Ronald Reagan--a leader who will not only continue the Reagan Revolution, but who will take that Revolution, shape it, build it, and move it forward in his own unique way. I know Ronald Reagan would be proud of him and would be pleased to see a man so worthy of the office once again sitting at his desk.

And while we honor President Reagan this weekend, let us remember that we are not merely commemorating past glories. Rather, we are renewing our commitment to a living revolution, an ongoing and unfinished agenda, and the lasting leadership of Ronald Reagan.

God bless you, and--as Ronald Reagan always used to say--God bless America.

The Honorable Jesse Helms is the Senior Senator from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. These remarks were delivered at a Ronald Reagan Foundation/Heritage Foundation luncheon celebrating the christening of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2001.


The Honorable Jesse Helms

Visiting Fellow