Every reporter and commentator who covered the recent Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Library recorded how the candidates competed to wrap themselves in the Reagan legacy, without giving real thought to what it was. But most of the reporters knew or remembered little of the Reagan presidency. They should have done their homework, the better to judge those who seek to understand why he remains the last successful Republican president. Having covered Reagan critically during his campaigns and his presidency I recorded his flaws and policy mistakes. But I can paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen: I knew Ronald Reagan, and these Republican contenders were no Ronald Reagan.
In a March 1 piece in the New York Review of Books, entitled “Reconstructing Ronald Reagan,” Russell Baker sought to understand Reagan’s popularity, and decided there was more to the man than met most of our eyes. I agree. Despite his conservatism, or maybe because of it, Reagan was no right-wing nut. He had the support of the Christian right, despite his divorce, but he did not campaign to reverse a woman’s right to choose abortion. He did not persecute gays (too many of his Hollywood friends were gay). Nor did he seek to destroy Medicare. And he signed legislation that saved Social Security for 75 years and created the huge surplus for the pensions of the boomer generation.
Most important, Reagan grew in office. Thus, none of the recollections of Ronald Reagan took notice of one of his favorite speeches–and one of his last. Which is too bad, for the speech before the Oxford Union on Dec. 4, 1992, which got little publicity at the time, gave the lie to those who would claim to be his ideological heirs. For he called for an international “army of conscience,” led by NATO and the United Nations to keep the peace.
In that speech, Reagan demonstrated a final time his capacity to grow beyond his reputation and even beyond beliefs he had held for years. This is not to excuse the huge deficit that was part of his legacy, nor his greatest blunders in Iran-contra or Lebanon, where he took responsibility for the deaths of some 240 Marines. But he reversed course and pulled the Marines out before more were killed.
Reagan, a life-long anti-communist, had declared war on the “evil empire,” yet established a unique relationship, even friendship, with the empire’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. With the help of Margaret Thatcher, Reagan had spotted Gorbachev as a genuine reformer long before most of his advisers, including Vice-president George H. W. Bush, who had run the CIA during the years it vastly overrated the economic and political strength of the Soviet Union.
At Reagan’s October, 1986, meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, which I covered, the two men talked privately about the possibility of ridding their arsenals of all strategic nuclear weapons, to the utter surprise and horror of more cautious advisers. As the declassifed minutes show, Reagan, the hawk, was even serious about sharing anti-missile–Star Wars–technology.
And in 1988 in Red Square when we reminded him of his “evil empire” speech, he replied something to the effect that that era is over. Back at Kennebunkport, Me., Bush scoffed at what he believed was Reagan’s naivete, and when he took office Bush delayed action on arms reduction for more than a year and his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater called Gorbachev a “drugstore cowboy.” Eventually Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Reagan gave him.
Reagan, who never second-guessed Bush, told me in a 1994 letter that despite the temptation to speak out on issues, “I have no desire to constantly interject myself into someone else’s show.” But in 1992, when Bush sent U.S. forces to Somalia but rejected using American power to end the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia, Reagan went to Oxford and at age 81, the former president broke surprising new ground.
His audience had come to poke a bit of fun at the Gipper, but this was not the Reagan they expected: “If you can bear it, you might cast your glance toward the unspeakable horrors of Yugoslavia and Sudan…We might well wonder if we are trading a single monolithic threat to the world’s peace for a host of smaller yet no less deadly flashpoints…Some might say that the west has no immediate interest in the volatile streets of Sarajevo or the arid wastelands of the Sudan.
“Such an attitude only raises a morally unavoidable question: Are the current threats to human dignity any less destructive because they are confined to a relatively small geographic area? Or in many cases affect non-western peoples? Let us be frank. Evil still stalks the planet.”
That, of course, was the lead in the one small wire story the next day. It missed the better lead, for Reagan recalled the derision a decade earlier that greeted his prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union. “Let me tell you of another dream I have…a dream I have long had…Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism, might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency? Are we not nearing a point in world history where civilized nations can in unison stand up to the most immoral and deadly excesses against humanity, such as those now defacing Somalia and Bosnia?…
“What I propose,” said Reagan, “is nothing less than a humanitarian velvet glove backed by a steel fist of military force….Faced with conditions of absolute inhumanity such as those…in Sudan and Somalia, does not the world have a moral responsibility to act? …In parts of Africa today, mankind is an endangered species. Have we come to the point where we must set up human preserves as we have for rhinos and elephants? If so, then let us do it now.”
There was no go-it-alone bravado, as might have been expected from Reagan. Instead he called on NATO, the new democracies of eastern Europe and Russia to end the bloodshed and the horror of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans. And although he had been no friend of the United Nations he concluded, that it is “morally imperative for the U.N. to intervene in Africa.”
But “that is only the beginning….we must work toward a standing U.N. force–an army of conscience–that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries through force, if necessary..Clearly governments that contribute troops to such efforts face the possibility of casualties. But I can think of no more honorable mission for a soldier or his country…”
He applauded the international coalition built by the elder Bush to defeat Iraq. But he had a lesson for the newly elected Bill Clinton and the younger George Bush: “As long as military power remains a necessary fact of modern existence, then we should use it as a humanitarian tool…(And) I believe we should rely more on multilateral institutions–such as NATO and the UN–to sanction the reasoned and concerted use of the power available.”
This from the man who once derided the UN. I caught the speech on C-Span and was as surprised as the audience, which stood and cheered, loud and long. When I called Reagan’s Los Angeles office for a copy, his aide told me, “The President really liked that speech.”