My wife Eileen and I are hunkered down this week under Cuomo’s quarantine, following our trip to California last week to visit the Reagan Ranch. The visit was arranged by our daughter Clare, who works for Young America’s Foundation (YAF)—and we are so grateful to that organization and its president Ron Robinson, for preserving this historic and iconic site.
For me, our visit recalled a decade, the 1980s, that was transformative—on a personal level, as those were the years in which Eileen and I met and married, and I finally finished college and embarked on my career in Catholic communications; but also on the national and international stage, as Reagan’s presidency revitalized America, St. John Paul II’s papacy rejuvenated the Church, and together they lit the spark and kindled the flames of peaceful revolution that ended the Cold War and freed millions from the yoke of Communist oppression.
It also seems, looking backward from the vantage point of 2020, to have been a much tamer time as well. Of course, in many ways it wasn’t. The world was gripped then as now by wars, terrorism, and threats to human survival; and domestically, many of the issues that still challenge us today—racial tensions, violent crime, immigration, health care, poverty, the mass destruction of pre-born human lives—were with us back then.
But I am thinking of the public discourse surrounding our politics—and the vital role that Ronald Reagan played in promoting civility in that discourse.
Of course, politics has always had a nasty edge to it; and we were reminded during this visit of the nastiness and ad hominem attacks to which Reagan was subjected by political opponents and media critics.
Remember, he was not just portrayed as wrong on the issues—that was fair game, as when then-GOP primary opponent George H.W. Bush termed Reagan’s tax cut plan “voodoo economics.” In that realm Reagan gave as good as he got—as when he said of the economic crisis, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
Hard-hitting, but the point was a policy one—Carter’s economic program was failing, in Reagan’s view, and a change in leadership was needed.
Contrast that with the constant portrayals of Reagan as a simplistic dolt who would starve the poor and plunge the world into nuclear annihilation. I cannot recall an instance when he responded in kind to such vicious personal attacks. If any readers do recall such an instance, I would appreciate your passing it along.
Instead, he sometimes deflected such personal attacks with self-deprecating humor. Most often he patiently strove to explain how he felt his policies would have just the opposite effect—uplifting the poor by stimulating economic growth, preserving world peace by being strong enough to deter aggression. That he did so, of course, in plain-spoken language that made his ideas accessible to all—earning him the “Great Communicator” sobriquet— drove his opponents crazy, and provoked their attacks on his intellect.
I would maintain that his civility and respect for his political adversaries was also a critical part of that “great communicator” persona. He was about persuading people as to the rightness of his ideas, not trying to demonize those who disagreed. He saved his strong moral condemnations for those world forces that were truly malevolent, like the Soviet “evil empire” that engaged in genocide and enslavement of its own people. Domestic political opponents were just that—political adversaries, not enemies—and while Reagan argued that their policy ideas were wrong-headed, one strains to recall him ever questioning their good intentions.
His respect and civility seemed to draw out those qualities in his opponents as well. We were reminded during our visit to the ranch of his rather remarkable relationship with then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Despite often bitter battles over tax cuts and various other legislation, the two seemed to have developed a genuine respect and even personal liking for one another. Can anyone even imagine, absent an overt act of God, a similar relationship developing today between President Trump and Speaker Pelosi?
Agree or disagree with President Reagan’s policies—I agreed with many of them—we all, I think, owe him a special debt of gratitude for modeling the art of civil political discourse. Like some others of that era—I’m thinking of the conservative Jack Kemp and the liberal “happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey—he showed how one can be a strong, emphatic advocate for the policies and principles one believes in, while respecting, not demonizing those who disagree.
How we miss that positive spirit; and how well it would serve us today, amid what has become an absolutely poisonous political atmosphere.