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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

“My Enemies
Will Stop at Nothing!”

(Reprinted from the issue of June 17)

Capitol BldgBy the time of his death, Ronald Reagan had literally not been himself for many years. What we used to call “senility,” or even “second childhood,” as if it were a gentle, almost benign thing, is now recognized as the terrible curse of Alzheimer’s, which destroys not only memory but personality itself before it finally kills the body. It was particularly painful to imagine the buoyant Reagan in such a decline, to say nothing of the torment of his wife and family.

It was an ironic comment on Reagan’s legacy that his death was greeted in Congress by calls, in both parties, for more federal funding of Alzheimer’s research. Even after eight years of Reagan’s conservatism, most Americans’ automatic response to any problem is to call for government action, especially federal action. The Great Communicator himself was never able to communicate the difference between the state and federal levels under the U.S. Constitution. He understood this vital distinction, which seems to be lost on George W. Bush. Even Bill Clinton reflected Reagan’s influence, if only rhetorically, when he announced that “the era of big government is over.” Under Bush it has become bigger than ever.

Reagan was our last president to be grounded in the old conservative tradition. He obviously read Human Events and was a member of the Conservative Book Club. His powerful rhetoric drew on the literature and journalism of what is now called paleoconservatism. As Enoch Powell used to say, in politics you have to give the voters a tune they can whistle. Reagan did this peerlessly.

The notion that he was a mere B actor, an “amiable dunce,” is thoroughly belied by his own speeches (when he wrote his own), commentaries, and private letters. Even when others wrote his speeches, they were shaped by his own philosophy and he delivered them with intelligence and conviction, again in contrast to Bush.

I knew several of his speechwriters, particularly Peggy Noonan, a close family friend (my kids adored her). Peggy found writing for Reagan sheer bliss. She knew that her eloquence would sound even better when he spoke it than it had in her imagination. And she wrote most of his finest speeches; some of the words he is remembered for are actually hers. But he inspired them. There was a deep bond between these two Irishers.

There was another thing: Reagan was an unfailingly gracious man. Peggy is hardly my only “source” for this; everyone who dealt with him remarked on his kindness. He had few intimates, but he charmed everyone with unassuming courtesy and attention.

One of his pals was my old boss at National Review, Bill Buckley. Bill’s famous public hauteur got him a reputation as a snob — which nobody would call Reagan — but, like Reagan, he was loved by everyone who worked for him. Beyond their shared conservatism, the two men were united by sweetness and sheer good humor. I saw them together only once, at a big dinner, where they kept topping each other’s jokes, bringing down the house. I was also tickled when Bill would report, with a big grin, that “Ron” had roared when he heard or read some of my own one-liners.

Reagan’s humor is famous, but, in a way, underrated. Despite what liberals called his “Manichean” philosophy, his view of the world was happy, contented, and basically comic. His convictions were inseparable from his wry, amused outlook. His mind wasn’t profound, but his humor was. He was a great politician because he took politics so lightly. His jokes about government depended for their effect on his audience’s recognition of their truth. If you could make a joke, you didn’t need an explanation.

This was the way Reagan reached people. He could reach them with a serious speech too; he meant what he said, and his sincerity was felt; but a funny quip, in the vein of Mark Twain or Will Rogers, was never far off. His jokes were distilled truths.

Liberals watched him mock their faith in government with helpless indignation. They could bear being attacked, but not being made light of. And Reagan was also disarmingly ready to make light of himself, so it was no use mocking him. Liberals could give solemn reasons why everyone should hate Reagan, but nobody who listened to him could hate him.

He had superbly that great Midwestern quality which in Kansas, I believe, is called joie de vivre. Before the 1980 New Hampshire primary, a reporter asked Reagan if it wasn’t “unfair” that a local television station was showing his old movies. “Yes,” he replied, “my enemies will stop at nothing.”
Discrediting Liberalism and Socialism

Despite the extravagant conservative encomia at his passing, Reagan lacked the heroic virtues. He didn’t “slash” the size and scope of government, though he might have liked to do so if the odds had been better; nor did he “win” the Cold War, though he toned it down considerably. His rhetoric was more satisfying than his action. After denouncing government profligacy, he signed the huge spending bills as they grew every year, alternately cutting and raising taxes, while the deficits ensured even higher taxes (or worse inflation) in the future.

To hear him talk, you’d have thought someone else was doing all the mischief without his abetting or approving it. Government was always “they,” not “we,” even when he was leading it. The odd disparity between his words and his acts was puzzling, but the simple truth is that, like most politicians, he took the path of least resistance. His convictions were genuine, but he was unwilling to take the risk of acting on them with full consistency. If you want to succeed in politics — and Reagan did — you’d better not disturb the peace of those who count on their government checks.

Conservatives are now remembering the Reagan years as their golden age. In fact, after the giddiness of electoral victory, they were years of frustration and disappointment. Hence the plaintive cry of those years: “Let Reagan be Reagan!” His warm personality certainly assuaged the pain, but pain there was, and plenty of it, when Reagan wasn’t “being Reagan.” He raised conservative hopes he couldn’t have fulfilled even if he’d been willing to sacrifice his career to do so. And he was far from willing to do that.

Still, one likes to think he made some permanent difference. He saw that liberalism had failed, that socialism was bound to fail, and he helped discredit both. Today the era of big government is far from “over”; but though the forces of big government still have enormous momentum on their side, they no longer have the same initiative they had before Reagan. He left our bad habits somewhat tempered by his own skepticism. It was good for us to hear skepticism about government coming from the very pinnacle of government itself. For all his shortcomings, Reagan left conservatism more confident, and he remains a happy memory and an encouraging symbol to those who resist tyranny.

SOBRANS, my monthly newsletter, takes a new, and dubious, look at the “Man of the Century”: the allegedly conservative Winston Churchill. If you have not seen it yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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