From the Archive: On the Passing and Presidency of Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan died ten years ago today. Here is what I wrote a couple of days later.

Despairing over the gap between where we are and where we need to be with Illinois political leadership led me to take last week off from writing a column — and then on Saturday, President Ronald Reagan died.

My first reaction was relief for Nancy Reagan and sadness at her loss. Then I thought of how the media coverage of Reagan’s death must be tough to watch by current Republican officials mired in their own mediocrity. Being reminded of what President Reagan accomplished can’t be easy for those who have won an office only to squander its potential.

When he took the oath, Reagan was too old to be concerned with the perks or status of the presidency. He had just witnessed the social, economic, and foreign policy travails of the 1960s and 1970s and he knew there was a lot of work to be done.

Reagan’s advantage was that he had lived through the 1930s and 1940s and as a result understood the basics: leadership is key, principle must guide, and Americans are up to the task.

Now compare that to the current GOP congressional leadership. Since Speaker Newt Gingrich retired it has lacked both courage and conviction. If Democrats had been in control it could hardly have been worse when it comes to unrestrained spending and the lack of entitlement program or tax reform.

In Illinois the subject of Republican leadership is almost too depressing to talk about. Emulating Reagan’s optimism in the land of his birth is currently a test. Fortunately, a dose of the spirit of Ronald Reagan can serve as a cure for the IL GOP’s malaise.

Leadership is not an option in politics and government. There’s no getting around the need for someone to step forward, set a course, and inspire the disparate factions to follow.

Legislatures might use committees, but they don’t govern by them. At the end of the day leaders must take charge within the legislative branch as surely as they do within the executive branch.

Reminding people of what’s possible can get you into trouble — you can be accused of all manner of malice and mean-spiritedness. My problem is that I can’t say something is impossible when it has already been done.

It wasn’t until early 1983 that I began to appreciate Reagan and his presidency. It was the day of his famous “evil empire” speech. I’m not sure I was conscious of it back then — but it’s clear looking back that with his bold words he was demonstrating leadership — I couldn’t help but be attracted to it. Since then, mediocrity in politics has been difficult for me to abide.

If there is a consolation in dealing with our current leaders it’s that I remember all too well how statesmanship can impact, how conviction can persuade, and how tough times can be weathered and overcome.

Reagan knew during the gloom of recession and the dark days of the Cold War that you must stick to your values even if it doesn’t feel good. You must hold up a standard and just let the critics wail. Reagan’s mission wasn’t to dilute principle to expand his base of support, it was to stand strong and convert doubters to a course of action that works.

While pointing out the shortcomings of our current political class isn’t pleasant, it nevertheless must be done in order to shine light on the opportunity that exists for real leadership to emerge.

Until it does, don’t bother telling me what can’t be done in the public square — it’s too late for that. I witnessed the Presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan.