I was in third grade on January 28, 1986, the day the Challenger exploded. I had just returned home weeks earlier from a vacation tour of Cape Canaveral, where I had seen that same shuttle waiting on its launch pad for what would be its last and shortest mission.
I had a keen interest in space exploration back then, and so I remember very well that visit to Florida, and later the sight of the fireball on television as the news repeatedly broadcast footage of the disaster.
One thing I do not remember at all is President Reagan’s speech that day. Nor would it have been memorable to me. I knew nothing about Ronald Reagan at the age of eight, except that his boring speeches often pre-empted Saturday cartoons, and that almost every adult seemed to speak of him disparagingly.
Looking back now, I am not surprised at those childhood impressions. Ronald Reagan was always a hated man.
In his career, he was given the reaction that any just man can expect. “The evil is in the White House at the present time,” House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D.-Mass.) declared in 1984, “and that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
Through his years of convalescence, a small but notable minority in Congress refused even to vote to wish him a happy birthday, instead voting “Present.”
In death, Reagan earned the high honor of joining Mother Theresa as one of those viciously maligned by Christopher Hitchens: “A cruel and stupid lizard,” he called the Gipper in a column last week.
But all the abuse that Reagan suffered only adds poignancy to his words after the Challenger disaster:
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave.”
Reagan could say those words because he lived them. If he cared what the world thought, he really didn’t show it. He was not the kind to complain if he wasn’t invited to give a speech at someone’s funeral, but rather the kind to die and be fondly remembered. To paraphrase his own words, he lived his life as a statement–a bold statement–and not an apology.
He thought it less important to be honored by others than to attain something truly honorable.
He Brought Back America
While campaigning for the 1980 election, Reagan was not afraid to speak out on the deplorable state of America’s world standing. Jimmy Carter had bungled the Iranian hostage crisis and let slide the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
“I’m beginning to wonder if the symbol of the United States pretty soon isn’t going to be an ambassador with a flag under his arm climbing into the escape helicopter,” he quipped. Sadly, it was not just a joke.
As President, Reagan closed the door on his predecessor’s jarring incompetence–on years of foolish feel-good diplomacy and needless concessions to a bloodthirsty enemy that was running wild all over the world.
Unlike the effete diplomatic corps that would later try to nix his famous line, “Tear down this wall,” Reagan began to conduct foreign policy like a real man–something the Soviets were not used to at all. Ronald Reagan told the truth about communism. He rejected the idea of sustained co-existence with an aggressive Evil Empire. He knew he had no right and no business, as he had said in 1964, “committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom, because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters.'”
For giving hope to millions worldwide, Reagan was mercilessly vilified by an elite that was more worried about offending that Evil Empire than it was about those standing in its deadly shadow.
For wresting Grenada from the Soviets–their long-sought refueling point for shipping arms to their terrorist allies in Nicaragua–Reagan was belittled as an ignorant buffoon, completely incapable of the job of President. Said Speaker O’Neill on that occasion in 1983, “He’s caused us continuous harm. He flubbed everything along the line. … He only works three to three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is President of the United States.”
For unflinchingly maintaining America’s right to equality in arms against the Soviet Union, Reagan was disparaged as a warmonger who, as then-Rep. Les Aspin (D.-Wis.) put it, “has opposed every step towards arms control by every President of both political parties.”
Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) would later decry the “moral darkness of the Reagan-Bush administration” at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and call for “a government of laws and not of law-breakers.”
Reagan did not care. He remained faithful throughout to the philosophy he had articulated in 1980: “Once we clearly demonstrate to the Soviet leadership that we are determined to compete, arms control negotiations will again have a chance.”
And he was right. His intransigence, his impolite commitment to the truth, later brought about a real arms reduction agreement in 1987, and a peace that would never have been possible under the sham agreements of his predecessors.
Some still refuse to credit Reagan with winning the Cold War. A few can be found who will argue that Gorbachev did the heavy lifting. (Of course they forget Gorbachev’s crackdown on dissidents in December 1990, his re-invasion of Lithuania the following month, and his failed attempt to repeal press freedom laws in 1991 as communism quickly lost its grip.) A handful might even make the case for Jimmy Carter, who cleverly let the Soviets overextend themselves by letting them have Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia … and anything else they wanted.
But Ronald Reagan, were he here today, would probably not worry about the argument, because it has already been won. It speaks for itself that he won two landslide victories; that he left office more beloved than any of his predecessors; that tens of thousands of admirers lined up last Wednesday and again on Thursday night in the sweltering heat of Washington D.C. to spend eight hours waiting to walk past the man’s closed casket for all of 20 seconds.
Let others busy themselves claiming credit; Ronald Reagan already made his statement. The future belongs to men like him: brave, and not fainthearted.
David Freddoso, Assistant Editor for Human Events, writes for Brainwash.