Conservatives are often criticized, somewhat justly, for longing endlessly for a second coming of the Reagan era. And yes, we must not be caught in the past. But even if we’ll never have another Ronald Reagan, or another Jack Kemp, that doesn’t mean we can’t apply to current affairs some of the lessons we should have learned — and should re-learn — from their examples.
Two forthcoming books re-teach those lessons well. Chief among them are the importance of certain political virtues in short supply these days, and especially in short supply when in constructive combination: dedication to core principles; infectious evangelical (small “e”) enthusiasm; optimism; and generosity of spirit.
The first book, by long-respected journalists Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, is the biography Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. The second, by premier Reagan historian Craig Shirley, is aptly described by its title: Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. Due out on Oct. 13, Last Actuses the formerly unexamined post-presidential years of Reagan, and especially the national outpouring of grief and respect in the week between his death and funeral, as a window into what made the man and his presidency special.
First, consider the Kemp who animates the Kondracke-Barnes book. Previously, amazingly little of a comprehensive nature had been written about this singular figure who the authors rightly call “the most important politician of the twentieth century who was not president.” When it came to selling innovative ideas and inspirational political visions, the former football champion, congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, think-tank leader, and vice-presidential nominee was a well-nigh irresistible force.
Kemp’s friend, ally, and later Speaker Newt Gingrich described Kemp’s approach as “cheerful persistence…. He loved people. He loved life. He made people happy. He was a genuine comrade. You were companions on a quest.”
Kemp famously sold Ronald Reagan on supply-side economics, and then sold it to a highly skeptical Republican Party on Capitol Hill even before Reagan became president. He also was the political progenitor of the flat tax, enterprise zones, “urban homesteading,” and “workfare” in place of welfare. He was a key and fervent apostle of Reagan’s “peace-through-strength” foreign and defense policies—and a leader, even before Reagan himself fully embraced them, in pushing free-market reforms for international, quasi-governmental, financial institutions, and in supplying (and arming) anti-Communist “freedom fighters” around the globe.
Kemp was relentless. He never considered a cause to be lost, and never assumed a colleague (of either party) was unpersuadable. Kondracke and Barnes quote him saying “the purpose of politics is not to defeat your opponents as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas.”
And then to keep pushing and pushing, cheerfully but intensely, until one can make those ideas understood, attractive—and, in many cases, galvanizing. Kemp’s 1979 manifesto, “An American Renaissance,” summed up his attitude. In it, he wrote: “There are no natural bounds to the human spirit and its accomplishments, except insofar as we are cramped by human timidity and fear or by human institutions.”
Nobody, ever, could accuse Jack Kemp of being timid.
These same traits of boldness, optimism, relentless political evangelism, and cheerfulness were, of course, Reagan’s calling cards even more famously than they were Kemp’s. Reagan added another trait Kemp sometimes lacked: a genuine self-effacement that made it easy to believe – and to believe correctly – that his embrace of various causes was motivated by genuine belief in their wisdom and efficacy, not by a desire for self-aggrandizement.
Reagan did not lack a healthy (meaning well-balanced) ego; he just lacked false pride. Last Act captures this quality in numerous vignettes—including one particularly memorable occasion, immediately upon leaving the presidency, of Reagan uncomplainingly answering his own office phones for several hours when the new lines were crossed. (You must read the short passage describing it to get a full, and wonderful, flavor of Reagan’s unpretentiousness.)
Last Act also repeatedly describes occasions emphasizing another trait possessed by Reagan, but by too few other politicians. It was a trait he possessed not instead of a well-known grit, not instead of a fierce competitiveness, not instead of will and determination and strength, but as a complementary companion to those virtues. As the book quotes former First Lady Barbara Bush saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who was so innately polite. Ronald Reagan was a gentleman.”
Conservatives today should remember that someone entirely comfortable in his own skin, someone firm in character and beliefs, can be gracious even while evincing a spine of titanium. Indeed, graciousness can redound to one’s political benefit: Erstwhile opponents often can be persuaded to one’s own side—or into capitulation—if their own pride is assuaged by the maintenance of the dignity that graciousness affords.
Example: The Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev desperately wanted not to kill Communism but to save it. Yet he was enticed (and outcompeted) by Reagan into presiding over its demise—all while, to this day, singing the personal praises of Reagan, the man who effectively defeated him in global diplomacy.
Finally, Reagan, even more than Kemp, exuded a sense of the “quest,” the championing of a cause innately noble. It is a sense rarely embodied even by the best of politicians today, conservatives included.
Shirley highlights a passage from Reagan’s last-ever speech to a national party convention, in Houston in 1992. Specifically addressing “young people,” Reagan said: “May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here. May all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never lose your natural, God-given optimism.”
As conservatives, and as a nation, if we strive and seek, and think and work, and do not yield, we can achieve. Bless the authors of these books, and even more the heroes, Reagan and Kemp, described therein, for reminding us that this belief is no mere fantasy. It is American truth.