Monday, June 07, 2004

What I remember about Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan died this past Saturday at the age of 93. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's for a decade, and while we mourn his passing, we are thankful that he is finally at peace.

Reagan was the first president I was aware of, and at the time, it was hard for me to imagine that there was ever any other. I was six when Ronald Reagan took office, and as I don't remember anything about the Carter administration, I think it's fair to say that I grew up with him as president. My parents were moderate Southern Baptists (which would mean fairly conservative to anyone else). While my father liked Reagan, my mother didn't think he was all that smart. We lived in some fairly liberal parts of the country for most of that time, and the outright scorn many of my peers felt for Reagan made it difficult for me to hold him in high esteem. I remember in the 1984 election, where all the kids in my class were talking about how their parents would vote for Mondale. I was astounded when my father told me he was voting for Reagan and explained to me what a good job he was doing. I had never thought about it before, and only now can I see how true that was.

I remember hearing about how during the Clinton campaign, during a townhall meeting, one of the audience stood up and said the World War 2 generation just couldn't understand how horrible it had been to grow up under the threat of nuclear war. Frankly, I wondered what he was talking about. I grew up under that threat, and while I was vaguely aware of it, I didn't spend much time worrying about it. Part of that was religious belief--"Of course the world is going to end someday, but God is in control" summed up my attitude then and now--but I think part of it was Reagan as well. I grew up knowing that the US was strong, so that the Soviet Union wouldn't dare attack us with nuclear weapons, and that it was good, so that we would never launch a nuclear first strike. Considering how many people in the previous decades had believed exactly the opposite on both counts, I have to credit that attitude to Reagan, his optimism and his faith.

When the cold war ended, I was as astounded as anyone. Who knew that the Soviet Union was so weak? Well, it turns out that Reagan knew, and even though I had appreciated his optimism, I had become too cynical to believe that he had been right. But he was, and the pressure he placed on the USSR is what brought it down. I believe that communism is an inherently flawed political and economic model, and I suppose the Soviet Union would have eventually failed anyway, but without Reagan and the will to bring the might of the US to bear on the USSR's weak infrastructure, it might have taken decades, and who knows how many more millions communism would have oppressed and killed in the meantime?

I owe Reagan a debt of gratitude, both for the hopefulness with which I grew up, and for bringing the greatest threat to the US and the world in that age to an end. Rest in peace, Mr. President.

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