Ronald Reagan: Statesman or Flash in the Pan?


Ellis Washington

If we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.

[Cuban refuge to Reagan’s friends] “I had someplace to escape to.” ~ Ronald Reagan, A Time for Choosing


If contemporary conservatism’s ascendancy can be marked by a singular event, it was the former-actor and future two-term governor of California Ronald Reagan’s iconic 1964 speech urging the election of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater over President Lyndon Johnson. Reagan’s legendary speech essentially unleashed the Conservative Manifesto for America; systematically reciting the principles of self-government against socialist, progressive, post-New Deal America, especially on issues regarding the economy, the welfare state, and the Cold War, global communism and the surreptitious influence of Fabian Socialism in Europe over the past 20 years since the end of World War II (i.e., incrementalism). From the ash heap of Senator Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat in 1964 arose the Phoenix that was Ronald Reagan and his transcendent speech which launched the modern day conservative revolution (A Time for Choosing– October 27, 1964).

The choice Reagan demands his audience to make is not between mere politicians, but between two worldviews of America—those who believe the Founders’ view of God, liberty, natural law and the power of the individual over government and those who believe the Progressives’ view of Marxism, socialism, progressivism and the power of government over the individual. “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Reagan essentially launched a counterrevolution against the 100 year Marxist/Socialist revolution in effect since the 1860s and their irrational faith in the rule of government to reinvent the Founders’ vision of republican self-government.

Reagan declared: “Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile.” The natural law idea that government is right and necessary when it is legitimized by consent of governed “is still the newest and the most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man.” The genius of Reagan’s speech was two main things that brought him to prominence during his entire career from Hollywood to the White House: (1) Clarity of thought and (2) Boldness of truth. Reagan’s powerful vision went directly to the heart of the common man in America  and spoke openly to his humanity that he didn’t need to be a Harvard graduate or an intellectual to understand how socialists, progressives and so-called liberals have decimated the American economy, bloated the federal bureaucracy, destroyed the Black family though ghetto renewal programs and welfare slavery, put American sovereignty under the control of globalist One-World plutocracy of the United Nations. Reagan was a giant, willing to courageously stand face to face against our enemy Russia under the twin doctrines “Peace through Strength” and “Trust by Verify”; wildly successful policies which eventually ended the Cold War in 1990, the end of Reagan’s two successful presidential terms in office (1981-89).

Reagan boldly urged bravery in protecting America from Communism (in Reagan’s day) and now against ISIS, Ebola, Iran, executive overreach, neo-communism and economic collapse (in our day). However such resolve is difficult without a spiritual foundation. “You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery,” Reagan said. The crisis that influence war makes Reagan’s quote of Winston Churchill even more relevant in our times: “The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we’re spirits—not animals…. There’s something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.” And failure to fulfill our duty could sentence our children to “a thousand years of darkness.” A fitting epitaph for Churchill, the savior of the West against Hitler and the Nazis, who would die that next year. As Churchill saved the West from Hitler, so Reagan would go on to save the West from Soviet Communism.

Ronald Reagan gave this historic speech in support of the Republican candidate against President Lyndon Johnson, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Reagan opens his speech with this ironic line: “I have spent most of my life as a Democrat.” Not only was Reagan a Democrat most of his life he was a Hollywood actor and the president of the Hollywood Actors Guild… a UNION! My point, Reagan wasn’t born a conservative; history and events caused him like me and millions of other former Democrats to change our minds, thus the critical necessity is evident in the title of his historic speech, A Time for Choosing.

“I recently have seen fit to follow another course,” Reagan says alluding to his political conversion from Democrat to Republican, from slavery to freedom. “I believe that the issues confronting us cross party lines.” Reagan goes deeper into the crux of his argument: socialist economics deconstructing American capitalism, “But I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future. No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income. Today, 37 cents out of every dollar earned in this country is the tax collector’s share, and yet our government continues to spend 17 million dollars a day more than the government takes in.” Reagan and our political forefathers must be spinning in their graves to see how our total federal debt isn’t the $17 trillion media propagandists continually propagate as if that was good news, the real number of America’s debt is over $202 trillion dollars.

Reminiscent of the great French essayist, Montaigne, Reagan was a master of the anecdote or interesting personal narrative and weaving these stories to make an overarching, even transcendent historical statement. “Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.” And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” Nevertheless liberals going back to the 1770s where our Founding Fathers who had to not only fight against tyranny from without (England and King George III) but homegrown traitors from within. I refer to the so-called “Loyalists” who were American colonists (i.e., traitors) loyal to England and actively fought against the American colonial efforts to secure liberty and independence from England. Loyalists were also fanatically pro-slavery and eventually helped to form the modern Democrat Party in 1828 after they failed to stop the American Revolution.

Reagan was a doctrinaire conservative and a man of the political right who refused to fall prey to the partisan parochialism of the left or the right, but preferred up and down: “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left and right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right,” Reagan said. “There’s only an up or down—[up] man’s old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.” This clarity of thought and boldness of truth marked Reagan as truly a man of the ages.     I end this essay as I began it with a Socratic question: Was Ronald Reagan a Statesman or a flash in the pan? It depends on how Americans chose to remember or learn from history or ignore history.


Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute. He is an adjunct professor at the National Paralegal College where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, Contracts and Advanced Legal Writing. A founding board member of Salt and Light Global, Washington is a co-host on “Joshua’s Trial,” a radio show of Christian conservative thought. Washington’s latest book is a 2-volume collection of 230 essays and Socratic dialogues – “The Progressive Revolution” (University Press of America, 2013).

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