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Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Reagan was the tonic for a nation in a funk

By John Carlson
Special to The Times

John Carlson
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This may sound shocking to anyone under 40, but 25 years ago, a lot of serious people were seriously wondering whether America's best days were behind us.

Time magazine ran a cover story asking, "Where Have All the Heroes Gone?" Inflation was 12 percent, unemployment over 7 percent, and both were rising simultaneously, giving birth to a new term, "stagflation." Gasoline was just as expensive as it is today (accounting for inflation), but you had to wait in long lines to buy it. Newspaper articles asked whether the American presidency was "too big a job for just one person."

Far from being the world's superpower, post-Vietnam America seemed paralyzed while the Soviet empire expanded throughout the Third World. And it wasn't just the communists pushing us around. Triumphant Islamic militants sacked the American embassy in Iran and marched 52 blindfolded Americans in front of television cameras. They wouldn't release them for over 400 days.

In the spring of 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered one of the most unusual speeches ever given by a sitting president. Known today as the "malaise" speech, its theme was that America was suffering a "crisis of the spirit." Even Democrats were not impressed. Carter was challenged for renomination by Ted Kennedy. Carter survived, but his party was divided and the nation remained despondent.

Enter Ronald Reagan. Against this somber background Reagan insisted that America's brightest days were still in front of us, not behind us. That America was the cure, not the cause of corruption and evil abroad. That we didn't need the government to do more, we needed it to do less, because its girth and expense were themselves the problem. In an era where experts endlessly bemoaned the "complexity" of insoluble problems, Reagan said, "There are simple solutions — just not easy ones."

Sophisticated people found Reagan, well... unsophisticated. But Reagan was telling Americans what they wanted to hear and what they wanted to believe about their country. And when they elected him by a 41-state landslide, he started doing what he said he would do.

He cut income taxes, government regulations and domestic government spending, saying that would create millions of new jobs. It did. He deregulated oil prices, claiming that it would lower the price of gasoline and end the "energy crisis." It did.

As for dealing with the Soviets, Reagan said that his program of increasing defense spending, planting Pershing missiles in NATO countries and aiding anti-Soviet rebels around the world would one day relegate Marxism-Leninism to "the ash heap of history."

This was too much for his critics in Congress, the universities, and most of the national news media. Many of them regarded Reagan as dumb, a warmonger, or both, and insisted that his policies would trigger a neverending arms race and perhaps lead to the unthinkable — a nuclear war.

When Reagan announced his support for a space-based system to defend the country from a nuclear strike, tensions rose even higher. The "nuclear freeze" movement in 1984 was huge, its demonstrations even larger than the anti-Iraq-war protests in 2004. History has yet to render a verdict on Iraq, but we already know who was right about the Soviets. The dumb warmonger won the Cold War without firing a shot.

But Reagan did more than unlock the American economy and liberate millions of people from communist captivity. He gave America back its smile. His sense of humor helped, but so did his belief that political differences weren't personal differences, a sentiment that seems to have gone missing on both sides in recent years.

Where should history rank Reagan? Probably the best president of the past half century. Why? Because, like his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan defined and ignited an entire political movement. For FDR it was New Deal liberalism. For Reagan, American conservatism.

Before Reagan, conservatism was instinctively reactive and mostly negative: Stop spending on this, don't do that, etc. Reagan made it both positive and pro-active — a movement based on core beliefs and clear ideas.

As Ted Kennedy, of all people, put it, Reagan "wrote most of these ideas not only into law, but into the national consciousness." The movement lives on.

Today we take it for granted in America that great days are still in front of us. We take for granted that lower taxes will stimulate growth. We take for granted that the best way to deal with deadly enemies is to stand up to them, not make excuses for them.

Twenty-five short years ago, Americans didn't take any of these things for granted. That's what Reagan changed.

John Carlson, the Republican nominee for governor in 2000, is founder of Washington Policy Center and hosts an afternoon talk show on KVI-AM (570).

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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