February 6 is the centenary of the birth of Ronald Wilson Reagan, one of the most intriguing public figures of our time.
Clark Clifford, the ultimate Washington insider, dismissed him as an “amiable dunce.” Yet Reagan’s posthumously published diaries and speech notes show a man of considerable insight and intelligence, who was shrewd enough to understand that the contempt of the elites was a political asset in securing the loyalty of the electorate and in getting what he wanted out of Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
He was feared by arms controllers and the foreign policy establishment as a man likely to blunder into a nuclear Armageddon. Yet recent studies by Martin and Annelise Anderson demonstrate that, unlike the liberal poobahs of deterrence, Reagan never learned to live with the bomb and bent every effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons, through both disarmament and the development of effective strategic defense.
His anti-communism was derided as primitive, unsophisticated, and a danger to world peace. Yet the historical record shows that his “simplistic” prescription for ending the Cold war — “We win; they lose” — turned out to be the key to the victory of imperfect democracies over a pluperfect tyranny.
Few great public figures of late modernity have been so misunderstood in their lifetime or revered at their death — with the exception of another man who was never supposed to become the titanic figure he became, Pope John Paul II. And, as I try to show in The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, these two unexpected giants of the late 20th century had strikingly parallel biographies, despite the obvious differences in their backgrounds and interests.
They were both orphaned young: the future pope, literally; the future president, virtually, given the alcoholism of his father.
They were both men of the theater, whose extensive acting experience gave them both crucial skills and a conviction: that the word of truth, spoken clearly and forcefully enough, could cut through the static of evil’s lies, rally hearts and souls, and create possibilities where only obstacles were apparent.
Their understanding of, and loathing for, communism came to both of them early: Reagan, through his battles with Hollywood communists for control of the Screen Actors Guild; John Paul II, through his experience of the brutalitarian period of Polish communism after World War II. Both knew that the crucial battle with communism was in the realm of the human spirit, for communism proposed a false, yet seductive, view of the human future that could best be matched by a nobler vision of human freedom.
They were both dismissed as “conservatives” by pundits for whom “conservative” was a polite placeholder for “reactionary.” Yet the truth of the matter was that both were radicals: Reagan, in his convictions about ridding the world of nuclear weapons; John Paul, in the depth of his Christian discipleship.
There was no “holy alliance” between them, as some overly imaginative reporters have alleged. But there was deep mutual respect. Shortly before Christmas 2001, John Paul II asked me, “How is President Reagan?” As it happened, I had just run into former attorney general Edwin Meese, who had told me a story that I shared with the Pope. Meese had gone to the christening of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan earlier that year, and had brought the former president (whose illness prevented him from attending) the typical ship’s baseball cap, emblazoned “U.S.S. Ronald Reagan CV-76,” that had been given out on the occasion. Reagan, a gentleman to the end, responded, “Thank you, Ed. That’s very kind. But why would anyone name a ship after me?” Twelve years after leaving office, the most consequential president since Franklin Roosevelt had no memory of having led his country, and the free world, for eight years.
John Paul II, who could not imagine the unreflected-upon life, was saddened by my tale, and asked that I get word of his solidarity in prayer to Mrs. Reagan. It’s a comfort to imagine these two happy warriors now, in different circumstances, beyond the reach of either misunderstanding or sorrow.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.