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Presidential historian reflects on Reagan's funeral

Posted on June 11, 2004

The commentary is being featured on National Review Online, www.national More information can be found on the official Web site for the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies,

What We Have Learned This Week, by Gleaves Whitney

With the burial of Ronald Reagan today, a remarkable week in our nation's recent history is drawing to a close. The past six days have been at turns mournful, celebratory, and reflective.

They have also been enlightening. Americans who have been reading their morning newspapers and tuning in to the television coverage have learned three things this week. In the first place, they have gotten a more vivid picture of Reagan the man: I mean the human being behind the actor-governor-president. Colleagues and acquaintances who approached Reagan too fast ran head on into his maddening inscrutability. While he seemed always at ease, he was not easy to know. This week the veil was lifted -- just a little bit -- because interspersed with the old familiar stories were new ones that cast light on Reagan's inner life as a husband, father, and man of faith. He may not have worn his heart on his sleeve, but there is no doubt that he had heart. It probably surprised many Americans to learn that their 40th president kept personal checks in the Oval Office to give alms to the poor.

Americans have also learned more about Reagan the president. He was executive material, all right, the consummate doer, and he was drawn to the White House not so much "to be" president as "to do" the things that the Constitution and tradition authorized a man with vision to do. Reagans presidency was chalk-full of bold initiatives, the stuff of statecraft. Tax cuts, welfare policy, judicial nominations, national defense -- in all these areas Reagan reordered public policy for at least a generation. How did he do it? We have all heard the quaint stories of his charm at the bargaining table, but essentially Reagan was a leader with the right stuff to make tough decisions. Secretary of State George Shultz likes to point out that the most important thing Reagan did during his first year as president was to fire the air traffic controllers who were illegally striking. This action telegraphed a message around the world: Reagan would not shrink from controversial decisions; he would do the right thing; he would uphold the law.

This past week Americans have also learned more about the ideas that inspired Ronald Reagan. The retrospectives on our 40th president have been nothing if not valuable lessons in political philosophy. After World War II, Reagan was inspired to fight not just communists, but communism. This is a distinction with a difference. Reagan was drawn to great ideas, and the great idea that took hold of his mind -- the strongest antidote to communism -- was what Russell Kirk called ordered liberty. Reagan championed ordered liberty not because it was a concession or a privilege but because it was a God-given right. The human estate would improve in proportion to the march of ordered freedom in souls and in societies, at home and abroad. Reagan was not a political philosopher, of course, but his vaulting achievement was to give wings to the idea of freedom. His words revived malaise-weary Americans, encouraged Solidarity workers in Poland, emboldened freedom fighters in Central America, challenged curious students in Moscow, and inspired others too numerous to count. And the world changed.

With the burial of Ronald Reagan today, a remarkable week in our nations history is drawing to a close. Or is it? In looking back, have we not been inspired to go forward? In remembering Reagan's life, are we not prouder Americans? Isn't our vision clearer? Our step crisper?

One of America's most perceptive historians, Henry Adams, wrote that a successful president needs three things: a helm to grasp, a port to seek, and a course to steer. Reagan had them all. The Constitution and tradition gave him the helm -- the authority -- to do bold things. His vision of ordered liberty -- what he called, after John Winthrop, the "shining city on a hill" -- was the port he sought. His practical intelligence and practiced leadership -- a felicitous combination -- gave him a course to steer.

At the end of the 20th century, Reagan led the nation through turbulent waters to the lee shore of the Cold War. In the 21st century, we find ourselves on the windward side of history once again. We are tossed in roiling waters, this time in a war against terrorism. Perhaps the greatest thing Americans learned this week is that our great nation brings forth leaders who help us through the storms.

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