Though opinions of Ronald Reagan tempered after his death in August, many historians and textbooks continue to diminish his legacy. Textbooks and historians have downplayed the “Reagan Revolution,” and some paint the fall of the USSR as a victory for both Reagan and Gorbachev. A new book, The Essential Ronald Reagan: Courage, Justice, and Wisdom by Lee Edwards, gives the other side of the story—the story to which too few Americans and students are exposed.
The Reagan Doctrine exemplified his prudence, said Edwards in a talk at the Heritage Foundation. Reagan’s foreign policy hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. His administration’s strategy assisted pro-freedom forces against Communist regimes, instead of committing large numbers of American troops overseas. The cost of this policy to the US government was low, while the Soviets had to expend more resources.
He exhibited political courage by bucking conventional wisdom by championing tax cuts to spur economic growth and reduce inflation. He rejected détente and challenged Moscow, denouncing the Soviets as an Evil Empire and pushing the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Reagan’s idea of justice was based on the “rights of every American from conception to natural death,” Edwards said. He envisioned a society of limited government, individual liberty, economic freedom, and Judeo-Christian values. He did not confine his sense of justice within America’s borders, as made clear by his 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan uttered the famous phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Reagan displayed both personal courage as well, Edwards pointed out. As a youth he saved 77 people from drowning in Dixon, Illinois. He recovered quickly from the 1981 assassination attempt and showed fortitude in the 1994 letter in which he disclosed he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Reagan was “no Hollywood puppet,” according to Edwards, but was an engaged student of history and philosophy. He was a voracious reader. Edwards remembered three books he saw in Reagan’s home during their first meeting: Witness by Whittaker Chambers, The Law by Frederic Bastiat, and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. “The books had obviously been read,” Edwards said.
Though many historians are today ambivalent, Edwards believes that Reagan “will be judged one of the great American presidents.” While Franklin Roosevelt is commonly perceived as occupying the role of greatest president of the first half of the 20th century, Reagan will do the same for the second half of the century. But the presidents will have vastly different legacies. Reagan had a “fundamental trust in people” and “a love of democracy rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
“Roosevelt turned to government to solve problems,” Edwards said. “Reagan turned to the people.”
Historian Lee Edwards has written this “essential volume for future generations,” as former Attorney General Ed Meese described it. Edwards knew Reagan, from his political beginnings in California to the White House. “[He is] more than a historian,” Meese said of Edwards. “[He is] in the midst of what has been happening in the conservative movement.”
Edwards met Reagan, who was preparing his bid for governor, in the late summer of 1965 in California. Reagan had entered the national spotlight a year earlier when he made a speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid. Despite frequent modern portrayals of Goldwater as an extremist, he believed in small government principles that would later define Reagan’s presidency. Goldwater was “an unabashed conservative politician who promised to repeal laws, not pass them,” Edwards said.
As President, and throughout his life, Reagan was guided by a “set of core beliefs,” Edwards said.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.