The passing of President Ronald Reagan into eternity is evoking an array of emotions and thoughts. People recall his winsome and shiny character, his classic American optimism. That is in sharp contrast to what his critics always assailed as his intellectual shallowness.
Yet, how does one account for the monumental legacy President Reagan’s time with us has left, not merely the United States, but the whole world?
At the end of the 1970s, a period when the turmoil and disruption of the 1960s might have begun to take institutional root (indeed, the cultural toll that sorry decade took is something with which we are still living), there Providentially arose on the world scene three leaders whose common moral perspective would change the course of human history.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyla, Krakow’s philosopher-archbishop was elected pope, taking the name John Paul II.
In 1979, a shopkeeper’s daughter by the name of Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of England.
And in 1981 a former actor became President of the United States.
These three towering figures, each with modest beginnings, ascended the world stage at a critical moment. Their common link was neither their respective nationalities, nor their faith tradition, nor even their politics. It was a common moral understanding that bound these three, uniting them in what seemed to some at the time a rather fantastical, even dangerous vision. Specifically, the pope, the Prime Minister and the President were clear about two things: the moral reprehensibility of communism and the moral necessity of replacing it with institutions of liberty.
We must remember that those considered at the time to be the smartest political analysts - whether in Rome, London or Washington - all accepted the notion that communism was a fixed feature of geo-politics that simply had to be realistically dealt with and contained, to the extent possible.
Not so with Reagan, Thatcher and Wojtyla. Their shared moral idea was sufficiently grand to enable them to envision a world without a Europe divided by a wall. Not a utopian vision, but an understanding of the dignity of the human person, made in the image of God, and entrusted with a destiny beyond this world.
It may have appeared to many that President Reagan was too simple an intellect to be entrusted with such military might. That is not what those who knew him well tell me. It seems, rather, that the sunny warrior for freedom simply understood how to “major on majors and minor on minors,” as the saying goes. In other words, he had an uncanny ability to prioritize, focus, delegate tasks and inspire a world to choose a path away from the road to serfdom.
I suggest that President Reagan possessed what many of the more ‘sophisticated’ members of the ‘white wine and brie set’ so clearly lack: a clear sense of moral priority. He would not be distracted from pursuing that moral priority despite the snickering and nay-saying, the disparagement and vile ridicule heaped upon him by the cultural elite.
That President Reagan won over the hearts of a world is seen by the profusion of gratitude pouring forth, especially from those who lived so long under the stern boot of collectivist taskmasters.
There was one other cultural note that might have been missed. After listening to the news reports Saturday evening of the president’s passing, I tuned my radio to the left-leaning National Public Radio, when Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was broadcasting live. Keillor, who consistently identifies himself as a ‘liberal’ and has a large left-leaning following, announced the passing of the president to the audience. The reaction was audible sighs, gaps and sadness. Then one could hear a single voice in the audience beginning to hoot and cheer, as though attempting to rouse the audience.
Keillor, to his credit, with great finesse and timing worthy of President Reagan himself, simply continued his tribute, marginalizing the hooting bore by going into a touching gospel song in tribute to the president.
Just that - simple respect from a self-professed liberal. And on NPR!
In case we have forgotten that President Reagan played a critical role in the collapse of communism, perhaps this episode of A Prairie Home Companion will remind us that he really did change the world - and for the better.
I had the great honor of personally meeting each of the towering personalities noted at the outset of this meditation. But my visit more than a decade ago with President Reagan in his Los Angeles office was memorable for the legendary kindness he showed Acton Executive Director Kris Mauren and myself. The great man expressed to us his gratitude for the work of the Acton Institute, which in many ways was made possible by the legacy he left to the world.
President Reagan now stands before the great and holy Judge whom each of us will confront one day. He does so having left the world a better and more prosperous place for having passed through it. May the same be said for each of us one day.
Rest well, Mr. President, from all your labors. May you be embraced by mercy.