WASHINGTON — A great man has died, moving a piece of the present into history. It is a history that many of us have been part of and that shapes our future.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s years in office were not easy. When a world power began living up to its billing, the domestic and international press labeled the Reagan administration as possessing only style over substance. Caricaturists loved to draw the president as a cowboy — with little knowledge or understanding of issues. Internationally, America was derided for having elected an “actor” as president. Domestically, the tax cuts were decried, as were the rising deficits, both of the budget and of trade.
Based on personal experience, I know that the president’s alleged ignorance and detachment were not factual. While teaching international marketing at Georgetown University, I wrote frequent editorials for newspapers. One of them dealt with the demands by the U.S. auto industry to impose sharp limits on Japanese car imports. I wrote at the time that U.S. consumers chose those foreign cars primarily due to quality and price, and urged the president not to give in to protectionism but rather to exhort the Detroit producers to make better cars. Reagan read this editorial in his daily morning brief, and remarked that perhaps I could make a contribution to the administration. This man was not removed from the import of daily life — he did something about it!
When, after a requisite number of White House interviews, I joined the Commerce Department, I did so with a mission — to make government better, and to find ways to compete more effectively. It was a big step up from teaching that material in the classroom. The government colleagues I encountered were imbued with a similar spirit and were ready to work hard to achieve results. We were not an administration free of internal friction — far from it — but we never had to argue about which end of the rope we were pulling. We traveled like missionaries to bring the word to the world. The welcome mat was not even out with our close allies.
I recall visits abroad to discuss new elements of a tough export-control policy, of new steps toward privatization of traditional governmental activities, or the reinvigoration of a stalled round of trade negotiations. Our partners abroad expressed abhorrence at an overly demanding agenda, were repelled by our unrealistic expectations and were appalled by the prospect for change. I remember the derisive snorts we received from our friends with experience during the crises surrounding the stationing of missiles. I vividly recall the knowing eye rolls of the experts when Reagan urged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to” tear down that wall.”
We never listed the answers to give to unexpected questions. But we all knew what to do and what to say. We had a culture with an ingrained understanding of issues, instead of being run by a rule book or bureaucratic controls.
Today we hear that Reagan was a great man — the global press and the many statements of condolences assure us that he was. But when did his many detractors decide that the transition to greatness occurred? Is it just because 15 years have passed since his term of office ended?
I believe it is because Reagan was a man of convictions and he had a vision of what he wanted to achieve. He followed through with a single-mindedness, tolerating little if any distraction, because he understood how his success on the key issues would make a permanent difference in all of our lives. His commitment, dedication and willingness to set a direction resonated with all of us. He walked with kings but kept the common touch.
I have re-read Reagan’s letter to me on Jan. 19, 1989, his last full day in office. His words explain his thinking: “government has to work with us, not over us; to stand by our side not ride on our back; and you ensured that government remains the servant, not the master, of the hopes and dreams of our people.” Thank you, President Reagan.