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Reagan's essence was optimism, patriotism

By William J. Bennett, Special to CNN
  • This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth
  • William Bennett, who worked for Reagan, recalls his influence on America
  • He says Reagan improved nation's economy, set it on better path
  • Bennett: He stood up against enemies of human rights, most notably the Soviet Union
  • Ronald Reagan
  • History
  • Taxes
  • World Politics

Editor's note: CNN Contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H. W. Bush.

This weekend commences the celebrations across the country and world of the 100th birthday of our 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. I was privileged to serve President Reagan in two capacities, first as his chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then again as his secretary of education.

So much has been said and written of this world historical figure, it is hard to add to it. But in thinking about his birthday celebration, a few things are worth re-emphasis.

First among them, to give a sense of his transformative life and legacy, it is worth noting how few other presidents have so much made of their 100th birthday -- he truly is in the pantheon of the great.

Many are too young to remember the full legacy and meaning of Reagan. But to begin, one has to first recall his accomplishments as president.

Against the economic theories of his political opponents, he believed in a somewhat new concept in American political economics: supply-side economic policy. More than anything, this included big marginal cuts in our tax rates. He had been speaking about the theory of tax cuts for several years before he was to become president, and he was derided for it by Democrats and fellow Republicans. But he stuck to it.

When he became president in 1981, the economy was in a shambles, our national mood was dour and the Soviet Union appeared to be the growth industry around the world while the United States seemed to be receding both on the world stage and in much of the world's respect for us.

When Reagan took office in January 1981, the U.S. Misery Index score (unemployment added to inflation) was 19.3. By the time he left, in 1989, the score had been reduced by 10 points and tax cuts had become not only a theme for much of the Republican party but a goal of and for many Democrats as well.

When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was on the march and appeared as hardened in its existence and commitment to Marxism-Leninism as ever. It had recently invaded Afghanistan, and it was causing trouble and creating satellites from Central America to Africa while its grip on Eastern Europe was unrelenting. Two years after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

If he were only known for his economic and defense policies, about which so much could be written, that would be enough. But President Reagan was much more, and about much more, than economics and defense. He stood strong for human rights and was willing to call out humanity's national enemies in the boldest terms.

I will never forget what former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky said, as just one example, about what it meant to him and his fellow prisoners when Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." The phrase offended much of the foreign policy establishment and the media, but it meant something important to those under the thumbscrew of that evil. Said Sharansky:

"This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

"It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin's 'Great October Bolshevik Revolution' and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution -- Reagan's Revolution."

While he stood tough and strong against our -- and humanity's -- enemies abroad, at home Reagan showed a congeniality to his political opponents. And he stood for and evinced a sunny optimism about both America and the American people. To him it was always "morning in America."

Indeed, in his farewell speech from the Oval Office, his major theme was about keeping that outlook for future generations here, keeping the tablets of the American story read and told by the American people -- by having them forever read and told to our nation's youth.

Of all the words that have been written about Reagan and his legacy, perhaps the best summation was George Will's: "Reagan became the great reassurer, the steadying captain of our clipper ship. He calmed the passengers -- and the sea."

When Reagan finally said goodbye to his country in his open letter to it in 1994, announcing his Alzheimer's disease, he reiterated so much of his life and his outlook that had attracted so many over the years.

There, he reminded us again of the bonds of faith, courage and affection that had so united the American people with him for so long.

"When the Lord calls me home," he wrote, "I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future." Whatever else is said about Ronald Reagan, and there is so much, this was his essence, his core: love of country and eternal optimism.

I never knew a happier, or better, warrior than Ronald Wilson Reagan.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.