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Friday, March 6, 2009

Given the dire state of the economy facing Ronald Reagan when he assumed the Presidency, it would have been understandable had he focused exclusively on those challenges. But he came to office with a broad agenda, and there were many important problems to solve. One that was of particular importance to the President was the how well the government served the people. He firmly believed that the government should work for the people, not the other way around. Governor and then President Reagan thought of the people as his boss, who, by electing him, had hired him to do the job. Throughout his career, Ronald Reagan was fond of telling true stories about the illogical and often mind-boggling – not to mention exasperating – inefficiency of the Federal bureaucracy. Although he did so with a smile, underlying the story-telling was a deep frustration. He vowed that if he ever had an opportunity to do something about it, he would. And he did. Not only did his Administration reduce the burden of excessive, redundant and unnecessary paperwork on businesses working with the government, it made changes that affected real people on a daily basis. When President Reagan took office, it took seven weeks to get a Social Security card and 43 days to get a passport. By the time he left, either one – or both – could be had in just 10 days.

As much as he used his own passport over the years, and as exotic and exciting as some of his foreign trips were, Ronald Reagan always looked forward to coming home. He genuinely loved America. From his beloved California to the New York Island, he was in awe of our country’s sheer beauty. Spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesties, oceans white with foam were not just words to him. It was how he saw America. He believed he had a special responsibility to protect the country’s environment and to preserve its natural beauty. President Reagan did more than just talk about it. The Reagan Administration was the first to establish a special unit at the Department of Justice to prosecute criminal polluters.

Polluters were not the only criminals who President Reagan intended to put out of business. Keeping people safe was always a top-of-agenda item for the Reagan Administration. It took a while, but in 1984, Congress passed the President’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which kept dangerous people behind bars, restricted the use of the insanity defense, reviewed Federal sentencing guidelines and toughened penalties for drug dealers and others. That same year, the President signed another very significant piece of legislation which made child pornography a separate criminal offense. The effect of the President’s work to prevent crime and put criminals where they belonged was dramatic. Nearly 2 million fewer households were hit by crime in 1987 than in 1980.

Preventing crime and locking up bad guys was only part of what President Reagan did to ensure justice for all. Another key component of his program was the appointment of judges who would faithfully interpret the Constitution rather than legislate from the bench. Of all the judicial appointments made by the President, none was more historically significant than Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. When Ronald Reagan became the first President to nominate a woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, he shattered a glass ceiling that had been in place since the founding of the country, forever changing not only the judiciary, but the role of women in our society. Little girls everywhere could now aspire to heights previously unavailable to them.

In many ways, President Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor was emblematic of how he viewed people – without an iota of prejudice. Gender, race ethnicity and religion just did not matter to him in the slightest. They were never factors in his decision making, other than when people were being discriminated against. When that happened, President Reagan was a tenacious fighter for equal rights. Under his leadership, the Federal government equaled or surpassed the number of civil rights cases filed by any previous Administration in virtually every enforcement category. Principal civil rights organizations received almost 18% more in funding.

President Reagan never forgot what it was like to grow up in a household with very limited financial means. He knew its impact on quality of life and helping the poor escape poverty was something he cared about deeply. Under his leadership, Federal spending for basic low-income assistance programs rose by 40%. The President also knew that a good education was the ticket out of poverty, and when his National Commission on Excellence in Education termed the U.S “A Nation at Risk” because of declining educational quality, he called for a variety of remedies including overall higher standards and accountability, parental choice and merit pay for teachers and principals.

Ronald Reagan was the first President to address the issue of HIV and AIDS. He established a Presidential Commission and consulted with Government agencies and private groups, after which a broad plan to fight the disease was implemented. Billions of dollars were committed for research, regulations making it difficult to get drugs to patients were eliminated and educational programs were developed, all of which were underpinned by a message of empathy for those infected. In a speech to the American Foundation for AIDS Research in May, 1987 he said:

“What our citizens must know is this: America faces a disease that is fatal and spreading. And this calls for urgency, not panic. It calls for compassion, not blame. And it calls for understanding, not ignorance. It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness.”

There was not a day during his eight years in the White House that Ronald Reagan did not work to ensure the domestic tranquility written about in the very first sentence of the Constitution. Forming a more perfect union was why he sought the Presidency in the first place, and was his “north star.”

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Foreign Policy
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Truth to tell, President Reagan was not exactly a fan of traveling – especially if it meant to far away places without Nancy. Once when talking to an aide about some upcoming foreign travel and the number of flights required, the President said “the highest I want to go is on the saddle of a horse.” But he understood the importance of representing America abroad and of forming relationships with his counterparts, and climbed the steps of Air Force One many times over the eight years, visiting more than two dozen countries. When he stood in a foreign capital and heard “The Star Spangled Banner” played by the host country’s band, President Reagan seemed to stand just a little taller and his chest swelled ever so slightly. You could almost feel his pride in representing the USA.

He believed fervently in the greatness and goodness of America, and knew that American strength was central to world peace. One of his first priorities as President was taking a demoralized and underfunded U.S. military and giving it the support and resources it needed to keep America safe and to be a force for peace around the globe. Nothing made him prouder than to be Commander in Chief. You could see in his face how much it meant to receive – and return – a salute. He felt a special bond with the men and women in uniform, especially the young people from the small towns across America. That they were willing to risk their lives for their country never ceased to amaze and humble President Reagan. He took no responsibility more seriously than to keep them out of harm’s way. But he made a commitment to them that if it ever became necessary to send them into battle, he would make sure they had what they needed to get the job done. By the time President Reagan left office, the U.S. military budget had increased 43% over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam War. Troop levels increased, there were significantly more weapons and equipment and the country’s intelligence program was vastly improved.

Ronald Reagan strengthened the military because he was a realist. He understood the world, and had a clear sense of what America’s role should be – the champion of freedom for peoples everywhere.

Perhaps his most steadfast ally in that pursuit was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. From the day they met, the two just “clicked.” They saw the world in similar ways, and found themselves in agreement on most global issues. The U.S. and British were said to have a “special relationship,” perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the Reagans’ first State Dinner in 1981 and last State Dinner in 1988 were both in honor of Mrs. Thatcher.

The “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. was not limited to the Prime Minister. Indeed, the Reagans and the British Royal family came to like each other quite a bit, so much so that Queen Elizabeth II invited President Reagan to go horseback riding with her at Windsor Castle, and Mrs. Reagan was an honored guest at two Royal weddings.

Pope John Paul II was another leader with whom President Reagan had a special rapport. Their relationship went well beyond the usual ceremonial events between a President and a Pope. As they came to know each other, they found they had similar views about Communist domination of Eastern Europe, and quietly worked together to support the Solidarity movement which eventually led to Poland becoming a free nation.

Poland was not the only nation which benefitted from President Reagan’s steadfast advocacy of democracy. While President Reagan was in the White House, Free, democratic elections were held for the first time in many years in the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Philippines. By the time President Reagan left office, the number of people in Latin America living under freely elected governments tripled from what it had been ten years earlier.

The President did more than just talk. In 1983, when he was asked by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, President Reagan sent U.S. troops to Grenada to lead a multi-national force in liberating that country from an oppressive Marxist dictatorship. Not only were the communists ousted, the troops rescued nearly 1,000 American medical students whose safety was in jeopardy under the brutal regime.

Maybe because growing up in the heartland of America Ronald Reagan learned the importance of being a good neighbor, he paid special attention to our neighbors to the north and south – Canada and Mexico. Wasting no time in reaching out, he took the unprecedented step of visiting Mexico as President-elect, and visited six more times while in the White House. He made Canada the first foreign country he visited as President, travelling there less than two months after assuming office, the first of five trips. While President Reagan enjoyed strong relationships with all of the Mexican and Canadian leaders during his Presidency, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney became a particularly staunch ally and valued friend.

Over the eight years, there were some frustrations in foreign policy, chief among which was the elusiveness of lasting peace in the Middle East. Progress was made, such as the finalization of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but the region remained unstable – as it had been for centuries. The 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was particularly disappointing and sad for President and Mrs. Reagan.

Overall, the impact of the Reagan Presidency on the world was undeniably positive. America’s foreign policy objectives were clear and consistent. We stood by our friends and did not back down when adversaries tried to spread their oppressive systems. Friend and foe alike knew that in the Oval Office was a President who kept his word. America was once again the beacon of freedom in the world.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

When it came to communism, socialism and other systems that denied people their basic human rights, President Reagan was tough as nails. A devoted anti-communist, he was not afraid to say what needed to be said or do what needed to be done to bring freedom to people who were living under repressive regimes.

In that regard, of all the foreign policy achievements of the Reagan Presidency, none is more important, or had more lasting impact on the world, than the fundamental change in U.S.-Soviet relations. It was not due to luck or accident. Speaking of U.S.-Soviet relations and his steadfast determination to reduce arms, President Reagan would often say: “We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.” He believed that if the mistrust was eliminated, then so, too, could the dangerous, destabilizing weapons. President Reagan was confident that if he could just get his Soviet counterpart in a room and tell him face-to-face that America had no hostile intent, the mistrust would begin to evaporate. Instinctively he knew that could not be accomplished through the traditional diplomacy of a bureaucratic State Department. So, to the horror of some long-time career government employees, he did what no President had ever done. While recovering from the assassination attempt in 1981, he handwrote a letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in reply to Brezhnev’s rather belligerent letter sent less than six weeks after President Reagan’s assumption of office. In his reply, President Reagan sought to find common ground and to establish a better tone to relations between the White House and the Kremlin. But as things turned out, the President would have to be patient. Brezhnev died in November 1982, and was replaced by Yuri Andropov. Less than 2 years later, Andropov died, and was succeeded by Constantin Chernenko. Incredibly, Chernenko died just 13 months later. To replace him, the Soviet high command chose a younger leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was Gorbachev with whom President Reagan would finally have that long-sought opportunity to begin to form a new relationship, one that would lead to a lessening of tensions between Washington and Moscow, and eventually to meaningful arms reduction.

The first of their five meetings was on “neutral turf.” It took place in Geneva, Switzerland in November 1985. In a small plain boat house just down a stone path from Fleur D’Eau, the grand chateau where their formal sessions took place, President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev sat down in two comfortable chairs in front of a roaring fireplace, and with only interpreters present, began to forge a relationship that would not only improve U.S.-Soviet relations, but would turn out to be the beginning of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and ultimately, of the Soviet Union itself.

Almost a year later, the two leaders got together again, this time in Reykjavik, Iceland. In a Summit meeting not long in the making, they met at Hofdi House, a picturesque waterfront structure that was once the French consulate. There they came tantalizingly close to an agreement to eliminate all medium-range missiles based in Europe. But at the last minute, Gorbachev insisted that the United States abandon plans for a space-based missile defense system. Despite President Reagan’s offer to share the system’s technology with the Soviet Union so that both countries could be protected, Gorbachev dug in his heels and would not budge. The last thing Ronald Reagan would ever do would be to risk America’s safety for the sake of an agreement. The Summit was over. The anger and sadness was etched in President Reagan’s face as he emerged from Hofdi House. There was chatter that this was the end of the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship, and that there would be no more Summits. But President Reagan knew better. Partly because of his natural optimism, and partly because he believed that Gorbachev shared his desire to make the world safer, he was certain that eventually talks would resume. The President directed his team to keep the dialogue going and to see whether the progress made in Reykjavik could be the basis for successful negotiations going forward. That’s exactly what happened.

It is a noteworthy measure of the confidence President Reagan had in the strength of his relationship with Gorbachev that just 8 months after Reykjavik, he boldly called on him to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Just as he expected, in December, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan welcomed the Gorbachevs to Washington for the third Summit. This time, the mood was upbeat and even celebratory. In a glittering East Room ceremony on December 8th, the two leaders signed the historic INF Treaty, eliminating all nuclear-armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,000 kilometers. For the first time ever, the amount of nuclear arms was actually being reduced rather than merely limited.

In the Spring of 1988 the Reagans traveled to Moscow for Summit #4. From a historical perspective, the highlight of that trip was the Kremlin ceremony at which President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signed the now-ratified INF Treaty, but the Reagans also found time to enjoy some cultural treats including the Bolshoi Ballet and a visit to a monastery.

The final Summit during the Reagan Presidency was in December, 1988. In what some called a “handing off” of the official relationship, President Reagan and President-elect (Vice President) George Bush traveled to New York to meet with Gorbachev.

The unlikely pairing of a devoted anti-Communist advocate of capitalism with a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist resulted not only in the most significant arms reduction treaty in history, but in a permanent change in U.S.-Soviet relations. Neither country, nor the world, would ever be the same again. Somehow, against all odds, “Ron and Mikhail,” as they eventually came to call each other, had found a way to make the planet safer after all.

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Reagan The Man
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the last day of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as he was walking out of the White House to his limousine for the ride to the Capitol, a White House aide looked at the President, and with tears in his eyes quietly said: “There will never be another one like him.”

Every president is unique, of course, but there was just something special about the man. Yet even people who knew Ronald Reagan well often had difficulty describing him. Optimistic but not naïve. Articulate but not glib. Intelligent yet guided by common sense. Well mannered but never pretentious. Friendly but not a pushover. Charismatic but real. Principled but not intransigent.

He was all of that and so much more. Perhaps the key to understanding Ronald Reagan is to realize his two defining characteristics – he genuinely liked people, and he was comfortable with who he was. That may not sound like much, but when you’re President, it makes all the difference.

President Reagan never tired of meeting people. He genuinely enjoyed campaigning, not just because he could advocate for his political positions on key issues, but mostly because he enjoyed being with people. You could see it in his eyes. There was a certain sparkle when he shook hands and exchanged a few words. He was not just “going through the motions.” He listened to what people had to say, and thought about what he could do to help. Often when he was back in his car or on Air Force One, he would turn to an aide and say: “There was a man back there who…” describing the person’s plight and asking what could be done about it.

It did not matter to Ronald Reagan whether you were the CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation, or the janitor who cleaned the CEO’s office at night. Station in life, gender, race, physical appearance, age – he did not care about any of those. What he cared about was people’s feelings. One time he made a speech that was not his best. The next day, after reading critical newspaper articles, he told his staff: “They’re right. It wasn’t a very good speech, but the poor fella who wrote it worked his heart out, and I was worried he would feel bad if I changed it too much.”

As great a speaker as he was, and as inspiring as his spoken visions could be, Ronald Reagan was equally happy telling a joke to a small group in a social situation. He would be quite animated, and always laughed heartily at the punch line – eyebrows raised, eyes crinkled, head back -- his wide smile lighting up the room. Maybe it was the Hollywood part of him that made him feel good about having made his audience laugh. And he was not afraid to laugh at himself. At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinners, no one enjoyed the comedians more when they poked fun at the President than the President himself.

He even found ways to be friends with political adversaries. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, an old-time Democratic pol from Massachusetts, would say all kinds of mean things about President Reagan. But rather than get angry or carry a grudge, the President invented a rule that Tip could say whatever he wanted during the day, but at 6 PM, the politics would stop and they would be friends. Nothing told the story of Ronald Reagan’s magnanimity more than pictures of those two old Irishmen swapping stories and laughing uproariously in the evening after a day of pretty intense verbal assaults.

Some would say that it was President Reagan’s affection for people that made him comfortable with who he was. It was why he never viewed life as a burden. On the contrary, he enjoyed it. He smiled easily and often. He took his responsibilities, but not himself, seriously. Sometimes he winked at aides during ceremonies as if to say “it’s just me.” He stood tall and walked purposefully, frequently with a little bounce in his step. He rarely raised his voice or gave in to anger. Oh, he could get annoyed from time to time, but it was almost always because he was behind schedule and people were kept waiting for him. He never thought of himself as better or more important than anyone else. One day he was running late for a haircut appointment and grumbled about it to a nearby aide. The aide told the President not to worry because the barber did not mind waiting. In a very firm voice, the President told the aide that was not the point. The point was all of the people back at the barber’s shop who were kept waiting because the schedule was overcrowded. From then on, the Appointments Secretary made certain there were no meetings scheduled immediately prior to haircuts.

Other than when Mrs. Reagan faced breast cancer, he was not a worrier. Ronald Reagan did not need the Presidency to feel good about himself or to vanquish some deep-seeded doubts. He never pretended to be someone other than who he was. He did not adopt a persona to fit the job. In fact, he made a point of saying that he didn’t “become” President, but rather that he had been trusted with temporary custody of an Office that belonged to the people.

He knew who he was and he was happy.

That’s why he never let ego get in the way. It was not always about him. On his desk in the Oval Office, President Reagan kept a small plaque with the words: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” He lived that in everything he did. Next to it was a sign that said: “It CAN Be Done.” The President kept it there to remind himself and visitors that in America, anything was possible – that we were limited only by our dreams.

It was Ronald Reagan’s happiness, his optimism, his enjoyment of life and his undying belief in the inherent goodness and spirit of the American people that got us to believe in ourselves again and put our country back on track. That, more than anything else, is the enduring legacy of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as America’s 40th President on January 20, 1981, the country was experiencing some of bleakest economic times since the Depression. Taxes were high, unemployment was high, interest rates were high and the national spirit was low.

Bringing America back was the new President’s top priority. He shared his vision in his Inaugural Address:

“This Administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this ’new beginning,’ and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy.”

President Reagan had earned a degree in Economics at Eureka college, and even though he would sometimes joke about “two economists having three opinions”, he knew what needed to be done and how to do it. He had a simple, but specific plan, of which he spoke often during the campaign: cut taxes, get control of government spending and get the government out of the way so that the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people could be unleashed. Some skeptics derisively called his plan “Reaganomics,” but President Reagan was undeterred. He knew that only if people had money in their pockets and incentives to invest and build businesses would jobs be created, inflation tamed and interest rates reduced.

Almost as soon as the Inaugural ceremony was over, President Reagan set his sights on Capitol Hill. From day one, he and his team worked tirelessly to get Congress to pass legislation to put the economy back on track. Even a near-fatal assassination attempt did not slow him down. While still recovering, he summoned Congressional leaders to the White House to twist their arms. Ronald Reagan may have been the first President to wear pajamas to a meeting with the bipartisan Congressional leadership. He wanted them to know he meant business.

His efforts paid off. In August 1981, President Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which brought reductions in individual income tax rates, the expensing of depreciable property, incentives for small businesses and incentives for savings. So began the Reagan Recovery. A few years later, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 brought the lowest individual and corporate income tax rates of any major industrialized country in the world.

The numbers tell the story. Over the eight years of the Reagan Administration:

  • 20 million new jobs were created
  • Inflation dropped from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.1% by 1988
  • Unemployment fell from 7.6% to 5.5%
  • Net worth of families earning between $20,000 and $50,000 annually grew by 27%
  • Real gross national product rose 26%
  • The prime interest rate was slashed by more than half, from an unprecedented 21.5% in January 1981 to 10% in August 1988

Given actual rates of inflation, through 1987, the Reagan tax cuts saved the median-income two-earner American family of four close to $9,000 in taxes from what it would have owed in 1980.

Tax cuts were only one “leg of the stool.” The second, jobs, was equally strong. Not only were there millions of new jobs, but the benefits of job creation were not limited to one segment of society. Employment of African-Americans rose by more than 25% between 1982 and 1988, and more than half of the new jobs created went to women.

Taming the lion called government spending was another key component of the plan – the “third leg of the stool.” Here, too, President Reagan did what he said he would do. During his Administration, growth in government spending plummeted from 10% in 1982, to just over 1% in 1987. With inflation factored in, Federal spending actually went down in 1987 – the first time that had happened in well over a decade.

So impressive was the Reagan Recovery that at the G7 Economic Summit in 1983, when it was obvious the President’s plan was working, the West German Chancellor asked him to “tell us about the American miracle." That was quite a turnaround from two years earlier, when President Reagan outlined his economic recovery plan to an unconvinced group of world leaders. Now, however, they all wanted to know how he did it, so he told them: reducing tax rates restored the incentive to produce and create jobs, and getting government out of the way allowed people to be entrepreneurs. From there, the free marketplace operated as it was supposed to.

As President Reagan observed with a wry smile, “I could tell our economic program was working when they stopped calling it Reaganomics.” But what really pleased him most about the Reagan Recovery was not the vindication or all the impressive statistics. To him, the success of Reaganomics was what it brought to the American people. Millions had good jobs and were able to keep more of the money for which they worked so hard. Families could reliably plan a budget and pay their bills. The seemingly insatiable Federal government was on a much-needed diet. And businesses and individual entrepreneurs were no longer hassled by their government, or paralyzed by burdensome and unnecessary regulations every time they wanted to expand.

In a phrase, the American dream had been restored.

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