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A President’s Passing: Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004

from NottArsed: The Nottwel Review, 2004
‘A true American original’ is how Bill Clinton described the United States’ fortieth president, Ronald Reagan, who died last month after a ten-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. In many ways, Reagan personified the American dream…A small-town boy, the son of a shoe salesman, he saved seventy-seven people as a lifeguard before becoming a sports broadcaster, then an actor with a career in Hollywood B-movies. He first entered politics as president of the Screen Actors Guild. At this time he was vaguely liberal, but his hatred of communism and his opposition to high taxes, as well as his second wife, Nancy, turned him toward conservatism. He became governor of California in 1966, before defeating incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter to become Commander-in-Chief in 1981.

Like most great leaders, Reagan’s legacy in power is a mixed one. His slashing of taxes was credited with reviving the US economy and creating millions of jobs, and doubling the revenue going into the government’s coffers. But Reagan also despised social programmes, and this translated into cuts in welfare and other services, so by the time Reagan left office in 1989 there were more people living below the poverty line than eight years previous, and more homeless on the streets.

In the area of foreign policy, Reagan’s achievements were equally mixed…His selling of weapons to Iran in return for the freeing of US hostages caused great controversy, as did his arming of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His administration was also responsible (though Reagan himself was cleared of any involvement in the affair) for illegally funding the Contras, a rebel group in Nicaragua fighting the communist government. However, we must not forget Reagan’s courage in helping to end the Cold War. He stood up to the Soviet Union – calling it the ‘evil empire’ – when all around him advised him not to. But he was also willing to negotiate. He abhorred nuclear weapons, and in 1987 signed the first agreement to limit the production of nuclear missiles with the Soviets. In 1987 also, Reagan stood at the Berlin wall and yelled: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ Two years later, the wall came down. Gorbachev recently said of Reagan: ‘Fate tied us together’, and acknowledged the US president had a ‘huge, possibly decisive’ role in ending the Cold War and bringing freedom to the many peoples of Eastern Europe.

Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly a man of conviction and kindness, and these traits can be seen in his writings (particularly in Reagan: A Life In Letters), which are widely available. His unyielding optimism and belief in a better tomorrow, and his faith in the power of one individual to make a difference, hoisted America out of an era of depression and self-doubt. In 1994, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Reagan drafted a farewell letter to the American people. ‘I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life’, he wrote. ‘I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.’ It is sad to think that, by the time he died, Reagan could not even recognise his family and friends, let alone remember he had been President of the United States.

Some quotes from the man…

‘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.’

‘I hope you’re all Republicans.’ (To surgeons as he entered the operating room after being shot, 1981)

‘Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.’

‘My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’ (During a radio microphone test, not realizing he was being recorded, 1984)

‘Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.’
‘One definition of an economist is somebody who sees something happen in practice and wonders if it will work in theory.’

‘No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.’

‘I’ve always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.’

‘I know it’s hard when you’re up to your armpits in alligators to remember you came here to drain the swamp.’

‘Peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will never surrender for it, now or ever.’

‘History teaches that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.’

‘The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things, but the one who inspires the people to do the greatest things.’

‘When those who are governed do too little, those who govern can, and will, do too much.’

‘I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.’

‘You say you believe there is one love in life for each of us – this is just not true. Can you believe that God means for millions of really young people to go on through life alone because a war robbed them of their first loves?… The world is full of lonely people – people capable of happiness and of giving happiness and love is not a magic touch of cosmic dust that preordains two people and two people only for each other. Love can grow slowly out of warmth and companionship and none of us should be afraid to seek it.’ (In a letter to a friend, before he became president)


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