Reagan in retrospect

By David Bardallis
web posted February 12, 2001

I could hardly have appreciated, as a boy of 9, the significance of that July day when a former California governor named Ronald Reagan accepted in my hometown of Detroit his party's nomination for president of the United States.

To the extent that politics played any role in my youthful imagination, it was largely confined to the vague awareness that something called "inflation" was making things tight for our family, and that my older brother, along with a lot of other people, thought President Carter was a fool. I knew little of Democrats or Republicans. After all, it was the middle of summer 1980. There was baseball to be played, Coca-Cola to be drunk (from glass bottles!), and a host of dandelions to be picked.

Though I have not always been what is termed a political conservative, I've nevertheless wondered as an adult about the subconscious role our 40th president played in shaping my attitudes and beliefs about America and what it means to be an American.

Throughout his administration, Reagan said a great many wise and inspiring things--or at least so it seems to me in looking backward. At the time, talk of limited government, tax policy, and budget deficits largely went over my head. Those were issues with which a young lad did not have to directly grapple. But talk of freedom, American greatness, and evil empires made intuitive sense to me. From the time a boy first plays cops and robbers, he understands the concept of good guys and bad guys. I knew we were the good guys. More importantly, I knew that what made us good was that we valued freedom and opposed tyranny.

Novelist Ayn Rand, who passed away early in Reagan's first term, often spoke of how people acquired and expressed a "sense of life." She wrote, "Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit sense of life."

Reagan's sense of life included all of the things his admirers have always praised him for: a contagious optimism, a humble faith in God, and an unshakeable belief in the moral and practical superiority of freedom. I won't say I was a conspicuous proponent of the first two (teen angst took care of optimism, and I was steadily falling away from my mother's Catholic faith), but one thing Reagan made sure we all knew was that to be American meant to be free. It took me longer to understand that our own version of welfare statism was as much a detriment to freedom as was Soviet-style totalitarianism. But the Great Communicator's eloquent defense of liberty as man's most desirable (earthly) goal undeniably had its effect on me. His sense of life became the basis for mine.

My libertarian friends often (and rightly) criticize Reagan for talking the talk but not walking the walk. That is, they note that his administration's actions (or lack of action) often failed to live up to his lofty rhetoric about individual liberty and limited government. (Ayn Rand herself referred to him as "a pragmatist who leans to the right.") I concede this sad fact--and have made the same argument myself to members of the "St. Ronnie" crowd. One doesn't need to crunch a bunch of GDP and CPI numbers to know that the federal government was generally larger and more meddlesome at the end of his tenure than it was at the beginning. For every branch he did manage to prune, another sprang up somewhere else and began to grow. Reagan was ultimately unable to strike at the root of Big Government; all the onerous structures of Leviathan remained after he departed the White House.

We can argue about why that was the case: That Reagan was a hypocrite and didn't really believe in the ideas he espoused, that he was stymied by a liberal press corps and Congress, or that the American people, after so many decades of indoctrination, liked and wanted their welfare state. Whatever the reason, the real value of Reagan's presidency was that it served as a much-needed reminder of America's radical and glorious past. And Americans sorely needed that reminder.

As for me, I was not only miseducated in government-run "public schools," I also was too young to know about Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, when it was much clearer that what conservatives were attempting to conserve was our legacy of freedom. Reagan left office as I was leaving high school, but thanks to the Gipper my education was just beginning.

David Bardallis is co-editor of LexNatura.Net, a conservative, Catholic journal of politics and culture.

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