Reagan Proved That Presidential Words Matter

Reagan Proved That Presidential
Words Matter

By Michael T. Benson


As John Winthrop approached the New World aboard the Arabella in 1630, he envisioned a shining “city upon a hill.” This was a phrase often employed by the late Ronald Reagan as he endeavored to hoist America out of the malaise into which it had fallen in the late 1970s. Reagan’s passing last Saturday has provided opportunity to reflect on the 40th president’s masterful use of the English language to lift and inspire, to cajole and persuade, to transform and transcend.

Reagan’s ability to communicate, honed through many years of acting and public speaking on behalf of General Electric and other entities, was immediately tested as he entered the Oval Office in 1981. Declaring that it was now “morning in America” Reagan set out to effect a sea change in the way we viewed ourselves as a nation – and to radically alter the way the rest of the world saw the United States.

Perhaps more than any other statement or speech, Reagan’s remarks to members of the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, defined his approach to the Soviet Union and to the Cold War. This new approach marked a complete departure from previous American policy in international affairs. After World War II, America set out in its pursuit of a policy of “containment” as defined by George Kennan and others in the Truman Administration. At its core, this policy was bent on “hemming in” Soviet expansion proclivities whether it was in Europe or Asia or the Middle East.

Reagan refused to accept containment, advocating rather a wholesale commitment to defeating Communism. As he stated: “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term – the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” The President concluded that the task he set forth would “long outlive our own generation,” but encouraged everyone to move toward a world “in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.” Reagan’s rhetoric soared and set in motion a revolution.

A mere five years later, Reagan again spoke in Europe, this time in front of the famed Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. His now legendary challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” sent shock waves through the Continent all the way to Moscow. Recently interviewed about his relationship with President Reagan, Mr. Gorbachev questioned whether or not any of the tectonic changes of the 1980s in the geopolitical landscape ever would have happened had it not been for Ronald Reagan.

Even those opposite Reagan on countless political issues have conceded his presidency marked a high-water point for America in the final stretch of the 20th Century. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a former aide to President John F. Kennedy, recently observed, “with eloquent words, a genius for simplification and contagious optimism, he set forth the broad direction in which he wanted to move the country and the world.” And E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post – a paper more at odds with Reagan than not during his two terms in office – recently commented that three presidents helped define the modern presidency of the last century more than any others: the two Roosevelts and Reagan.

As befits a man commonly referred to as “The Great Communicator,” words were sometimes not even needed to convey a principle or feeling. Several associates have recollected the experience of James Baker, Reagan’s first Chief of Staff, entering the Oval Office in shirt sleeves and neatly placing his suit coat on the back of a sofa opposite the President’s desk just a few days into Reagan’s first term. No words were spoken, no verbal reprimand tendered, but the look Reagan shot Baker told him that the formers respect for the Office of the President demanded certain rules of comportment and decorum. From that day forward, no one – not even President Reagan himself – entered the Oval Office without jacket and tie. Such was the reverence Reagan wished all to show the office looked to as the Leader of the Free World.

Interestingly enough, Reagan’s political hero was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Raised in a staunchly Democratic Irish-American home, Reagan idolized FDR. It is all together fitting, then, to borrow the words of the New York Times upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945 when it predicted that “men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now” that FDR had been the chief executive to fight Hitler and Tojo. As presidential historian Michael Beschloss has astutely observed, Americans in 2004 might “now give similar thanks that they twice elected a president who saw the chance to end the cold war in his own time.”

What then is the legacy of the Reagan Revolution? Of all the tributes heaped upon this son of Illinois, which will rise above the rest? When pressed by one of his very capable speechwriters, Peggy Noonan, what he thought the meaning of his presidency was, Reagan reluctantly responded that he “advanced the boundaries of freedom in a world more at peace with itself.” What a legacy this man has left to my and subsequent generations. And he did it through the magnetism of his personality, his ebullient nature, his boundless optimism in the future of America and the irrefutable power of his words.