They stopped short of shouting, “Mr. Matthews, I am paying for this microphone!” but the Republican candidates at last night’s debate tried to project themselves as 21st-century Ronald Reagans, invoking his name 20 times, an average of twice per candidate, in contrast to the seven mentions of George W. Bush.
What was the key to Reagan’s greatness and success? Historians and pundits have explored and no doubt will continue to explore this question for some time. Perhaps no one will ever fully figure out the unique combination of characteristics that made Reagan great, that made Reagan the most successful president of the 20th century, that made Reagan Reagan. And that is as it should be, for surely it requires an impoverished view of the character of a man to believe that it ever can be fully understood.
But that doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t worthwhile. Indeed, the study of greatness is vital to understanding the times in which we live, for it is one of the primary forces that shape them.
For this reason, we owe a great debt to Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, the editors of Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press, 2003). Their book is a compilation, with explanatory commentary, of 1,100 of the thousands of letters that Reagan wrote over his lifetime. The letters have been authenticated as having been written by Reagan himself. In fact, the majority are transcribed from drafts in Reagan’s own hand.
The letters–written to family, friends, and foes, leaders foreign and domestic, pen pals and children–are an invaluable window into the character and convictions of Ronald Reagan.
Some of the most profound letters are those in which Reagan describes his faith in God and in Jesus Christ. In a 1978 letter, Reagan relies on Scripture to “state my case” for the divinity of Christ:
“Perhaps it is true that Jesus never used the word “Messiah” with regard to himself (although I’m not sure that he didn’t) but in John 1, 10 and 14 he identifies himself pretty definitely more than once.
“Is there really any ambiguity in his words: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me?’ … In John 10 he says, ‘I am in the Father and the Father in me.’ And he makes reference to being with God, ‘before the world was,’ and sitting on the ‘right hand of God.’
“… These and other statements he made about himself, foreclose in my opinion, any question as to his divinity. It doesn’t seem to me that he gave us any choice; either he was what he said he was or he was the world’s greatest liar. …” (pp. 276-77)
Reagan was a man of deep conviction on other matters as well. A common theme throughout his letters is the dangers of dependency on government. For example, in 1975, he wrote:
“In my opinion, the problem is a big government approach, and that is strictly a Democrat philosophy which we as Republicans should oppose.
“We have turned to government more and more (for answers that could better be provided in the marketplace) until we have shackled business and industry with so many restrictions, nitpicking regulations and punitive taxes we can no longer compete in the world market. Thus, we can’t expand industry to provide the jobs our people need.” (p. 267)
Elsewhere, he lamented:
“Today so many things we once thought of as personal or private responsibility are now just accepted as government’s job. With this in my opinion has grown the idea that we are incapable as individuals of affecting government.” (p. 258)
The respect for the individual that seems to undergird Reagan’s disdain for big bureaucracy runs throughout his letters. Indeed, the fact that he wrote so many personal letters himself speaks volumes about his deep belief that every person counts. Some of the most charming of these are the letters he wrote to children. To a 13-year-old Girl Scout president, he wrote in 1985:
“Your Cadette troop 1541 sounds like a real active group with some achievements to be proud of. I wish you well on your plans for a trip to Europe. I’ve enclosed a small contribution for your fundraising campaign. After all us presidents have to stick together.” (p. 657)
To a grateful immigrant from communist Romania, Reagan gave a glimpse of how his regard for the individual informed his overarching vision:
“I dream of the day when all over the world people can know this freedom and escape from communist rule.” (p. 260)
More than 20 years later, it’s tempting to forget how out of reach that dream seemed when Reagan wrote that letter in 1983.
Perhaps because Reagan knew that his vision would only be realized over time, he was able to stand strong against the folly of the quick fix. In the midst of recession in 1982, he wrote:
“[T]here are no ‘quick fixes,’ for what ails our economy. Indeed ‘quick fixes,’ over the last 40 years have led to the present mess–a trillion dollar debt, the high interest rates …, and the unemployment.” (p. 312)
Yet Reagan, who rejected quick fixes, achieved the singular victory that stands above the many others in defining his presidency–the victory few thought was possible, and that virtually none expected to be achieved as quickly as it was.
For Reagan, while understanding that the world’s greatest menace could not be defeated overnight, nonetheless never gave up hope that it would be defeated. Indeed, the current that runs through Reagan’s life and letters is hope.
On the June day in 1987, when he called on Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, Reagan also said:
“I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.” (p. 535)
And the wall came tumbling down.