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President Reagan & Russell Kirk

Happy Birthday, Mr. President. What a happy blessing was given gratuitously to the world more than one hundred years ago today on the vast plains of northern Illinois.

I must admit, I’m always at a loss when I hear or read conservatives spending more time criticizing Ronald Reagan than singing his praises. For eight years, America experienced purpose, confidence, and growth under his inspiration and leadership. Even more importantly, in alliance with the Vatican and Ten Downing Street, Reagan hastened—dramatically and powerfully—the end of Soviet tyranny in eastern Europe. What could have been important in the 1980s?

Reagan gave America and the western world, I believe, a full generation to set the world right.  A moment to catch our breath, to reexamine our policies, and our place in the world.

Simply because the last four administrations have foolishly squandered this gracious inheritance is no reason to blame Reagan. He gave the West everything he had, and he did so with considerable wit and poise.

At the beginning of Reagan’s first administration, our own patron, Russell Kirk, praised Reagan for his many abilities and prophesized his greatness in the White House.

At the Heritage Foundation, Kirk said:

“I commend to President Reagan, then, the paradoxical virtue of audacity; I know him endowed with the mode of rhetoric suited to the American temper; and I hope that he and those about him may glimpse some of the truths that poets discern. Otherwise, Oblivion, that great-sized monster of ingratitudes, may devour more than good deeds past.”

“So I trust that for the next three years we may expect from President Reagan, and those closest to him, audacity, and again audacity, and always audacity. Not being one to suffer gladly the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Ronald Reagan may be counted upon to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”

“For his power of will, Ronald Reagan is honored already. He has had the audacity to declare that this American Republic will endure and thrive.  he has been sufficiently bold to set his face against the prophets of decay. With the old Romans, he knows that audacity is a bulwark, and that fortune both fears and fears the audacious. [page 115] The American Republic commenced with audacity; if that audacity is exhausted, the Republic must end. Ronald Reagan, the audacious American stage-manager just now, is not disposed to let fall that iron curtain of national destiny. For him, the American drama is not yet played out.” [Kirk, Reclaiming a Patrimony, 107, 115-116]

Kirk and Reagan kept up a correspondence between 1981 and 1989, and Kirk visited Reagan several times in Washington, D.C. In 1989, President Reagan awarded Dr. Kirk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest awards bestowed by the executive branch.

Some conservatives have claimed that Kirk misjudged Reagan early in his presidency, never really having the time to rectify what he had said in the early 1980s. But, this simply isn’t true. In his memoirs, written just before Kirk’s death in 1994 and published a year later, Kirk wrote glowingly of Reagan. It should be remembered, this was five years after Reagan left office, plenty of time for Kirk to have revised his opinion of Reagan should such a revision have been necessary.

It wasn’t.

“Someone should have presented Mr. Reagan with a tremendous medal, studded with emeralds, for having restored the repute and the popularity of the American presidency. But who was greater than he, that might have made such a presentation?” [Kirk, Sword of Imagination, 454]

Who, indeed?  Then or now?

Oh good and gracious Lord, please send us another such a man—a man of character and a man of purpose. And, thank you for giving us Russell Kirk who died fifteen years ago this spring, to recognize and praise such greatness in our midst.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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4 replies to this post
  1. Quite. Without a doubt. Rather than ask if Mr Reagan lived up to our expectations, we should ask ourselves if we have been worthy of the opportunities that he provided us.

    Stephen Masty

  2. Great tribute, Brad. President Reagan will be remembered for many accomplishments, but it was his vision that will stand the test of time. To stand at the Berlin Wall and call for its destruction is something that will last with me forever. As a doctoral candidate in Russian language and history at the time, I was struck by his daring, and greatly stunned by people in the field who called Reagan a madman for saying such. It was standard teaching in the 1980s that while the Soviet Union was facing some challenges (an aging leadership class and issues of nationalities, in particular), we could expect no significant systemic changes. Very few world historical figures could imagine a post-Soviet world, Reagan and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn being the major two. This was a great example of the demonstration of the power of the moral imagination to effectuate change.

  3. I too share a great affection for Ronald Reagan. Standing up to Communism was proper and courageous. However, I am concerned that we have idealized Mr. Reagan to the point that we have overlooked the domestic budget and federal employment growth during the Reagan administration. I don't believe it is proper to simply blame the Democrat congress for this explosion of growth of the federal leviathan.

    I suggest three articles which attempt to examine the Reagan legacy without rose colored classes:




    If we defeat communism but significantly increase the federal budget and the number of federal employees is it still a grand conservative victory? I believe we can discuss this question without denying the good side of the Reagan legacy.

  4. Winston, I will read your recommended articles with thanks. Yet I remember those days in Washington and the difficulties of reducing budgets when Tip O'Neill's Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. It may have been that Mr Reagan's hands were tied, it may have been that he figured that once somewhat unfettered the mighty American economic engine could outgrow and outpace the budget, and it might have been that he needed to buy bipartisan cooperation on the ingredients that brought down the Soviet Empire. He used to say, "Nowadays you build a better mouse-trap and the government comes along and builds a better mouse." I'd bet the farm that he never liked Big Government, big spending or federal intrusion no matter how badly he failed to stop it, but i do not know why exactly.

    Stephen Masty

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