Nancy Reagan’s passing takes me back in memory to some visits with the president and first lady in the White House during the early 1980s. The reader will indulge the personal nature of my account; my only aim is to recall a moment when the West was galvanized by a doctrine that the Europeans called neo-liberalism, of which Reagan was a standard-bearer. To gain access to the president, it was first necessary to convince Mrs. Reagan that I was not one of those French intellectuals, generally socialist, who came to try to ensnare her husband. She was a woman of contrasts: as delicate as fine porcelain, with big inquisitive eyes and an iron will. I obtained her consent by showing my admiration for the white rhododendrons of her private garden. A Frenchman who knew his plants couldn’t be too bad.
Nancy Reagan never discussed politics with strangers; the only serious subject she took up with me was her fight against drugs. She spoke with an emotion that seemingly covered some painful family secret. President Reagan, whom I asked about the war on drugs, supported his wife’s campaign with more devotion than conviction. He was impressed by the argument of the economist Milton Friedman and of his own secretary of state, George P. Shultz, who believed that drug legalization would be the least bad solution to the overdose epidemic. I took Ronald Reagan to be someone who believed that it is best to let the market solve economic and social problems, to let the individual choose his life and his morals, and to keep the role of the state to a minimum—a libertarian, in American political terminology.
A believer in freedom in all cases, then, President Reagan was also favorable to migration. He thought it benefitted both immigrants and the host country. The Left attributed this position to the president’s cozy relationship with California’s business community. I took his position on immigration instead to be a matter of principle, shared by most free-market thinkers. But Reagan was also an astute politician, who knew how to accommodate reality and negotiate with his enemies.
In Europe, he was often taken for an idiot, probably because he understood every complex situation in terms of a few elementary principles: capitalism works, socialism does not; when the state gets mixed up in things that are not its business, it does harm; the USSR is an Empire of Evil and will eventually fall. Moreover, Reagan laid out his thoughts with the help of folksy anecdotes, something that the American public loved but left Europeans perplexed.
What struck me during my conversations with the Reagans was the authenticity of their convictions. President Reagan had become a free-market advocate long before his election, through his experience as governor of California and by his assiduous reading of Friedman’s Business Week columns. Friedman had a gift for adapting for a wide readership the ideas of authors such as Frédéric Bastiat or Jean-Baptiste Say (Friedman considered Say and Bastiat to be the early nineteenth century French founders of free-market thinking). These ideas were to become the principles of Reaganism. Similarly, Reagan had been inspired by Shultz and the Star Wars strategist Edward Teller, who persuaded him that the Soviet economy was incapable of financing an arms race. It also seemed to me that the immoral nature (in an ethical, not a religious sense, for Reagan was the least religious of presidents) of the USSR determined his judgment and his conviction that the “Soviet evil” could not prevail.
Reagan is now considered one of the United States’s greatest presidents. Nostalgia for that period has eclipsed some of the less successful aspects of his presidency—including military operations in Nicaragua and Lebanon that ended catastrophically and an unemployment that was higher than it is today, though it fell significantly during his second term as the economy boomed. Enthusiasm for Reagan on the right, and the end of contempt for him on the left, can no doubt be explained by the simplicity of his arguments, his faith in the West’s values, and the fit between the man, the message, and the manner of expression.
Reagan’s manuscripts are preserved at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. There one can verify that he wrote his speeches with his own pen, with a great clarity of style. He was not surrounded, as his successors have been, by a whole squadron of marketing advisers weighing every word before the president utters it like a parakeet without conviction. Only Nancy Reagan read over his manuscripts and gave advice. In the West today, we sorely miss politicians with such direct ideas, who wrote speeches for themselves in an understandable language, and whose actions coincided with their convictions.
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