The first time I saw Ronald Reagan in person, I was in a close-up on national television, crying. It was the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in 1976, and I was the youngest delegate from Gerald Ford’s home state, pledged to the candidate who had just lost to him. I would have slit my arm to pledge my loyalty in a big bloody RR, if anyone had asked. I was completely clothed in white that night, and as my hero Reagan was defeated I Iost my political innocence. The best man doesn’t always win.
It took the nation four more years to discover its devotion to Reagan, but it finally did. I was privileged to be one of many people from the conservative movement to be appointed by President Reagan to serve in his Administration. I left my job at The Heritage Foundation to accept a position in the White House Office of Public Liaison, where I was tasked with putting on briefings on the new administration’s economic policy for leaders of the business community.
One thing you learn quickly in the Washington world is that power has a clear ratio to the length of one’s title. Short title = big job. President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury—these are all short titles and jobs that pack a punch. But Deputy Special Assistant to the President in the Office of Public Liaison of the White House — now that’s a position so far down the totem pole that I really had no business setting foot in the Indian Treaty Room. But I did in fact find myself there holding briefings with all manner of distinguished people. The really important people got to hear the President. The moderately important people got to hear the Vice President and a member or two of the cabinet in the briefings I put together for them. The rest got, well… me. Another thing I learned is that Washington runs on the backs of eager twenty-somethings who work insane hours to make up for the lack of experience we should have had for the responsibility we bore. It was a privilege to serve, for which I have been grateful ever since.
Ronald Reagan was clear about his sunny vision for America. He had a contagious confidence in the capacity of ordinary Americans to accomplish extraordinary things, if given the freedom to come up with their own solutions. Years on the speaking trail for GE had given him the opportunity to experience the ingenuity and energy of Americans across the country. He believed in the great capacity of this country’s wind-swept plains and fertile fields to grow good grain and great souls.
Reagan became president at a time that America was suffering a “malaise,” as Jimmy Carter had diagnosed the nation. Gas lines were long and tempers were short. Carter had just bungled the humiliating attempt to rescue hostages. The Special Forces on the mission said they could have rescued them, even with one helicopter grounded with sand in the gears. But the same man who micromanaged that rescue decided who got to play on the White House tennis courts. We needed a new morning in America. And Ronald Reagan gave it to us.
His plan for economic renewal had four points: Cut spending, reduce the rate of taxation, reduce regulation, and slow the growth of the money supply. Although many of the members of House and Senate had campaigned on cutting spending, when given the proposed budget cuts they said “Terrific—except for this one little exception…” Tobacco subsidies in North Carolina, sheep subsidies in Montana, etc. etc. And that was just the Republicans. Add up 535 exceptions in the House and Senate and you are talking real money. Reagan pushed the Congress, they pushed back. The vitriolic exchanges, posturing and hypocrisy that ensued was the next object lesson in losing my political innocence. President Reagan did make progress in the latter three goals, and surprised his critics when the lower tax rates brought in greater revenue. But the spending cuts never materialized the way he had intended. I then understood the old adage of von Bismarck that if you have any respect for law or sausages, you should never see them being made.
President Reagan was gracious, charming and warm in every situation I ever had the opportunity to observe him. One of the quips that endeared him most was his grace under fire—literally—after John Hinckley’s bullet felled Reagan in the attempted assassination in March 1981. We huddled around televisions in white-faced anxiety, stunned by the news too horrible to fathom. Reagan’s first words to Nancy were, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
One of my favorite Reagan stories is from the visit Mother Teresa made to Washington. I had been chauffeured across town to the Senate office building in a White House limousine, in an incongruous scene, stepping out rather grandly to go and hear this saint from the slums of Calcutta. With flashbulbs popping, Members of Congress jockeyed to stand by her side for the photo-op. She told us what she did in serving the poorest of the poor, like the man she had found just the previous week, lying in a gutter, half eaten by worms, rotting. This tiny nun carried him to her home for the sick and dying. She washed his wounds, picked out the maggots, put him into clean sheets and gave him a drink of water. She also gave him what he had not known until then, unconditional love, and dignity. “I have lived like an animal all my life,” the man told her looking up, “but I will die like an angel.” The room full of self-important political personages was stunned into silence, and then erupted into applause. It occurred to me that a day in Mother Teresa’s life brought more good to the face of the earth than all of our efforts combined.
The next day, Mother Teresa came to the White House for lunch with President and Mrs. Reagan. I came to join the crowd of reporters and White House staff for her farewell. “What did you talk about, Mr. President?” shouted one of the reporters. “We listened,” he replied.
I later found myself on the other side of the Atlantic, reporting international economic and political news from Europe as a television correspondent. The cynical criticism of my beloved president was painful to bear, as was the near hysterical reaction of the Europeans who were to be protected by the Pershing missiles. These were stationed as a response to Soviet SS-20s aimed at major European cities, but it was as if America were targeting the whining students on the streets, not protecting them. President Reagan had correctly assessed the intentions of the Soviets and he was determined to check their military might with an unflinching western response.
Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in 1982 and they both reflected on the chillingly near brush with death they had both experienced in 1981. The attempt on the Pope’s life at the hand of the Bulgarian assassin was most likely sanctioned by the highest communist officials to decapitate the moral leadership of what they perceived to be one of their biggest threats: the Church. Both Reagan and the Pope believed they had been granted more years in life to fulfill some kind of destiny ordained by God. Reagan listened carefully to the Pope’s words on the deep sources of spiritual identity that transcend the political realm.
When Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet regime as the “evil empire,” he was echoing what Solzhenitsyn had told the AFL-CIO in his 1986 speech, when he said the USSR was “the concentration of world evil.” Reagan was outraged when President Ford snubbed Solzhenitsyn and refused to meet with him. Solzhenitsyn and Reagan admired each other, and in 1981 the Russian wrote to the President saying: “I rejoice that the United States at last has a president such as you and I unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by that villainous bullet.” When Reagan spoke of the “evil empire,” he was stating a metaphysical truth that every dissident in Stasi, Securitate or KGB prison cells knew to be true. I know this because more than 150 of these dissidents later told me their own stories from the “evil empire.” Although the pundits in Europe and America ridiculed him, President Reagan understood that the conflict with communism had a spiritual dimension, as well as political and economic ramifications.
Reagan responded quickly to the flicker of movement in Poland as Solidarnosz solidified, and his administration equipped their leaders with the means to communicate with each other—FAX machines, which at that pre-internet time offered a breakthrough means of free communication in a lock-down regime. Quiet moves were made to strengthen the roots of civil society in the countries where citizens were finding their own conscience and courage.
When Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and boldly proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it took our breath away. Germans had been separated from their relatives since 1961 by the jagged barbed wire of the wall, built in an act of desperation to keep East Germans from fleeing to freedom, and both sides had come to accept this monstrosity as unchanging. I had crossed the border into the East and listened to their stories of despair. (I was tailed and they were later interrogated.) The willingness of communists to shoot and imprison their own citizens rather than let them escape was justifiable cause for their subjects’ gloomy resignation. Not everyone is born to be a martyr.
As bold as that shout-out was, President Reagan knew that more than strong rhetoric was necessary to back down the Soviets. He was convinced that by strengthening the West’s military might, the Soviets would have to loosen their grip. The Reykjavik Summit in 1986 was criticized as a failure, but Reagan’s resolve pushed Gorbachev on arms reduction and human rights violations. He left no doubt in Gorbachev’s mind on America’s fortitude in defending freedom. He also managed to secure the release of one of Russia’s political prisoners on the eve of that summit: Irina Ratushinskaya. She was a poet whose crime had been to write verse that alluded to God. For her “dissemination of anti-Soviet agitation in poetic form” she had been sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp, where she was desperately ill with ailments of the heart, liver and kidneys. She was stripped and beaten, suffered two concussions, spent 39 days in an unheated cell and contracted pneumonia. President Reagan secured her release from the Soviets. Her release was a whiff of oxygen to other imprisoned dissidents, I learned in later interviews with them.
Reagan continued to stand unflinchingly in his military resistance, while quietly working back channels to secure freedom for political prisoners and encourage the pockets of resistance throughout the East Bloc. Small cells of leaders in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states, many of whom were committed to seeking a peaceful resistance to communism, were growing in influence. The spiritual leadership of Pope John Paul II spoke straight to their hearts, with his clarion call, “Be not afraid!” The Pope reminded people first in Poland and later throughout the entire Soviet empire that they had eternal value and dignity as children of God, with an identity that transcended the state. Pastors like Christian Fuehrer assembled people to pray each week in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. The spiritual revolution that was taking place across the entire East Bloc preceded, and in important ways made possible, the political revolution that followed. And the Christian leaders who emerged were most certainly the reason that the resistance remained peaceful.
At the same time a moral awakening was beginning to ignite through the plays of Vaclav Havel, and the novels of Solzhenitsyn, both of whom had earned imprisonment for their literary works. Just owning one of Solzhenitsyn’s books could earn you one year in an East German prison. Both Solzhenitsyn and Havel excoriated the “culture of the lie” that all subjects of communism lived in, where everyone thought one thing and said another, to be safe. But a few courageous souls were daring to stand and speak the truth, even if the price was losing their job or going to prison. They stood straight and unbowed behind the Wall, like candles on a darkened landscape. And as they illuminated the space around them, a few more people dared to stand with them.
But the willingness of the communists to crack the heads of demonstrators or imprison them continued. Gorbachev had no intention of turning the Soviet Union into a western style republic or a free market economy. He only wanted enough internal reform—perestroika—to get the failing economy moving, while continuing to feed the military machine.
President Reagan’s unflinching resolve eventually backed the Russians down. I interviewed one of Gorbachev’s top economic advisers, Alexander Zaichenko, after the fall. In 1986, as an adviser to Gorbachev’s Council of Ministers, Zaichenko co-authored with two other analysts a 13-page report that laid out the state of the flagging economy in Russia and her satellites. The Soviet Union was already spending 20 percent of its GNP on military research and materials, compared to 6 percent in the US. Zaichenko’s report concluded that further Soviet expenditures to counter western strength, particularly SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative), would bankrupt them by the year 2000. Gorbachev read the report somberly, according to Zaichenko, then called his closest advisers together and told them in so many words ‘We have to put an end to the Cold War and especially the arms race. There is no way out.’
As the subjects of communism found their conscience and their voice, they stood up one at a time, carrying small candles, and faced down troops under orders to shoot them in Leipzig and Berlin and Prague and Warsaw. They walked up to the tanks rolling into the streets of Moscow and knocked on the side until the drivers popped open the top to see what the ruckus was. Shirinai Dossova, one of the women in the human chain around the Russian White House, held up a Bible and gave it to one of the drivers saying, “It says here not to kill. Are you going to kill me?” Her courage was contagious, and it galvanized the wills of others who put their bodies between the tanks and the newly elected members of the Duma inside.
The long fuse that was lit in Poland in 1979 with Pope John Paul’s first visit to his homeland detonated ten years later, ultimately toppling the Berlin Wall. What took ten years in Poland took ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in East Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia, and ten hours in Romania. The aftershocks of the spiritual and political earthquake toppled the rest of the Soviet Union in 1991.
There were multiple causes and numerous players in bringing about the end of communism. But it was clear to me then, as I wrote Candles Behind the Wall, and it has since been validated by many others, that President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were crucial in shaping the events that led up to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. In the end, one of the greatest powers on earth groaned, staggered, and collapsed. Nearly 400 million people were freed and scarcely a shot was fired. Reagan deserves accolades for his irreplaceable role in this remarkable chapter of history.
Was Ronald Reagan perfect? No. Did he accomplish all he set out to? No. To answer his conservative critics, yes, the expenditures grew in his Administration, as did the size of government. But Ronald Reagan was truly a great president who led our nation through a critical period in our history, demonstrating tenacity, courage and faith. He faced down an enemy and never blinked. He inspired Americans to look to our better angels and reminded us that we hold the potential within us to do great things, with God’s help. I still admire him greatly. And I miss him.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.