Amid the tumult over a combative president and our sorry state of politics and society, many Americans, regardless of political bent, must surely wish for a yesteryear when things were more polite, calm and thoughtful. A common wish is for a statesman like former President Ronald Reagan.
Time dulls the memories. Often we remember only the good. But there are indeed good, definitive and telling memories of Mr. Reagan. He came to politics from the glow of Hollywood along with his elegant and benevolent wife, Nancy. He had a way of speaking elegantly and professionally. One of his most dramatic moments came on June 12, 1987, when he famously spoke these lines in Berlin to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the site of the Berlin wall separating East and West Germany: “..if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The Berlin Wall fell just over two years later on Nov. 9, 1989, during the administration of Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. Those words and that event are riveting memories in many American minds.
Reagan offered stirring oratory on many occasions. But as a recent email making the rounds reminded me, he also offered some humorous observations that delighted supporters and disarmed those with whom he differed. For instance, regarding government, he said: “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”
He also is credited with this little truism: “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
Further examples of his wit surface in his view of politics when he said: “It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”
He is also credited with this timely gem: “Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed, there are many rewards; if you disgrace yourself, you can always write a book.”
Reagan’s persona reflects a more civil and respectful time in American and global history. In some ways, those years, though considered years of American conservatism, reflected liberal leanings when the cause was right. For instance, during the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981, James Brady, the president’s press secretary, was shot and critically wounded. That led to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Then again, gun violence was tamer in 1994. Today’s prevailing thoughts of aggression, even vengeance, have resulted in heartbreaking incidents nationwide with individuals attacking others not only over political differences but also for racial, ethnic and religious differences. It seems political statesmanship has declined as human savagery and prejudice have more and more consumed us and our leadership.
Certainly, humor can’t solve all problems — even the wry brand Reagan displayed. But humor, kind and light, rather than prejudicial and coarse, can lead to more congenial discussions and helpful and focused collaborations. It’s much easier to achieve cooperation with gentle wit and humble willingness than with stubborn attitudes and inflexible resolves.
More concerning after what we saw in Charlottesville, negative speech and hateful attitudes can bleed into our younger generations, creating a self-perpetuating prophecy. When the young witness venomous speech and hateful attitudes among generations they look to for wisdom and discipline — especially in the trappings of celebrity status — they can’t be fully blamed for assuming such behavior is worthy of emulation. And in the exchange innocence and optimism are lost.
Ronald Reagan set an example with his humor and statesmanship. Such traits have not survived in the current era. Only when we return to respecting others can we hope for real progress — the type that counts on cooperation, collaboration and unity sprinkled, yes, with a bit of the Gipper’s droll asides.