February 2, 2001

February 2, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED020201: The Real Ronald Reagan

Presidential myths die hard. Many Americans still believe Dwight Eisenhower was an inarticulate, indifferent chief executive who remained aloof from party politics. Others insist that John F. Kennedy was one of the most brilliant occupants of the White House since Thomas Jefferson. And far too many perceive Ronald Reagan as an amiable dunce wholly dependent on speechwriters and the TelePrompter.

Historians have long since established that a lucid and subtle mind lie behind Eisenhower's deliberately twisted syntax. They have also established that Kennedy was a determined middlebrow whose high-profile books, "Why England Slept" and "Profiles in Courage," were written for him by others.

And now we have indisputable proof of Ronald Reagan's sharp, far-ranging mind-and foresight-with the publication of "Reagan, In His Own Hand" (The Free Press), a selection of 670 radio commentaries the president-to-be personally wrote and delivered between 1975 and 1979 on a range of issues. They show how badly his foes underestimated him.

In writing his commentaries, Reagan drew on hundreds of sources; his drafts contain thousands of facts and figures. I had the opportunity to confirm Reagan's intellectual breadth in 1965 when I visited his Pacific Palisades home and personally inspected his extensive library. It was filled with works of history, economics and biography heavily annotated in his distinctive hand. He was, the editors of "In His Own Hand" write, "a one-man think tank."

Here in the commentaries, long before he launched his successful 1980 campaign for the presidency, we see Reagan's conservative vision for America-a vision of faith and freedom that would restore Americans' confidence in themselves and their country, produce the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history and end the Cold War without firing a shot.

The main goal of America's foreign policy, Reagan argued in commentary after commentary, should be not simply to contain but to defeat communism through a strong military and support of the "captive nations" behind the Iron Curtain. He was confident that communism could not survive because it suppressed economic as well as political freedom.

In May 1975, for example, he used language that anticipated his famous 1982 comment to the British Parliament that communism was headed for the ashheap of history: "Nothing proves the failure of Marxism more than the Soviet Union's inability to produce weapons for its military ambitions and at the same time provide for their peoples every day." His conclusion: "Maybe there is an answer. We simply do what's morally right. Stop doing business with them. Let their system collapse."

In the area of domestic and economic policy, Reagan stressed the importance of tax cuts and less government regulation. His policy essay of January 8, 1975 points out that "government has grown so big in these last four decades that not even the Office of Management and Budget ... knows how many boards, agencies, bureaus and commissions there are."

His commentaries were programmatic as well as philosophical. In March 1977, he stressed the need for income tax indexing-a key ingredient of his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act. On several occasions, he criticized the weaknesses of the Social Security system and urged the creation of personal savings accounts that could "double the return promised by Social Security."

Nor did he neglect social issues. He addressed the question of abortion only once but quite clearly: "My answer as to what kind of abortion bill I could sign was one that recognized an abortion is the taking of a human life." He criticized the Supreme Court's decision to "expel" God from our public schools: "Christmas can be celebrated in the school room with pine trees, tinsel and reindeers but there must be no mention of the man whose birthday is being celebrated. One wonders how a teacher would answer if a student asked why it was called Christmas."

The late 1970s were a time of pessimism for many Americans, engendered by low economic growth, high unemployment and inflation, and communism's aggressive thrust into Latin America, Africa and Asia. But Reagan had no doubts about the future. "I am more convinced than ever," he declared, "of the greatness of our people and their capacity to determine their own destiny."

To help them realize their destiny, though, the people needed the right ideas and the right leader. They found both in Ronald Reagan, whose indomitable optimism, high intelligence and commitment to basic American principles abound in this collection of public policy essays-in this revealing portrait of a remarkable conservative mind.

Lee Edwards, Ph.D., a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America."

About the Author

Lee Edwards, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

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