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.
“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.