RONALD REAGAN, INDIVIDUALISM AND LEADERSHIP
With Saturday's sad announcement concerning the death of former President Ronald Reagan, it is appropriate to recall a favorite election-year campaign theme of commentators and journalists: the lack of leadership among the various political contenders. As far back as 1960, one can find a flood of articles, speeches and books bemoaning America's loss of leadership, the rising tide of moral decay, and a general lack of vision, or mission.
Yet, however hard they tried, the chattering classes never could make that charge stick when it came to Ronald Reagan. His would-be critics knew they were trumped when he gave his first televised address to the nation - on behalf of presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. In what has come to be known as the "rendezvous with destiny speech" (or simply "The Speech"), he challenged his audience with such blunt remarks such: "If … you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he'll eat you last." Clearly, Ronald Reagan didn't concern himself about whom he might "offend" with his rhetoric - and as a consequence, he rarely did. He might have made those on the left who disagreed with him angy, as with his "Evil Empire" characterization of communism. But "offended"? No, nobody tried to level that charge.
Ronald Reagan was atypical for the years covering his administration. Americans had largely forgotten by the 1980s what leadership was about. The late author and president emeritus of Brown University, Henry M. Wriston, observed in a lecture to Bowdoin College in 1960, that "the individual once was at the core of our political, religious and economic thought." This meant, he said, that "initiative is decentralized [while] responsibility is personalized." Wriston noted that somewhere in the 1930s, individualism had become associated with exploitation of one's fellow citizens, whereupon the term individualism became, well, a dirty word.
Of course, leadership is a quality of individuals, not of society. The era that produced Reagan, Churchill, Truman, and Gandhi did not look to others to make the hard choices of life. They knew that real leaders do not hide in a social group.
Unlike Bill Clinton, who dithered "while Rome burned" following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and again after the bombing of our soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1995, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the attack on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the USS Cole incident in 2000, Ronald Reagan sent bombers to strike Libya as soon as it became clear that Colonel Muammar Gadhafi was behind in the attack on American soldiers in a West Berlin nightclub. The Libyan dictator didn't bother us again.
Mr. Reagan was decisive in sending troops to Grenada in 1983 to save the island from Cuban soldiers. The materials confiscated following that conflict sent an unmistakable message that Grenada was targeted for takeover. Fidel Castro didn't try the same stunt twice, either.
Then there was President Reagan's proposed missile-defense concept, facetiously dubbed "Star Wars" by his left-leaning critics. But the idea not only helped put the final nail in the coffin on Soviet weapons-buildup, but was ahead of its time in anticipating the threat from rogue nations. Today, a missile-defense shield is back on the front burner.
Besides President Reagan, people today can point to Rudolph Giuliani as a leader. He took an ailing New York City by the horns, put teeth back into laws already on the books regarding public decency and ethical conduct by officials. He brought down crime, cracked down on welfare fraud and nearly eradicated the open-air drug trade, even in the face of rabid criticism by the liberal-leftists in the media and among the special interest groups. After the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Giuliani was the fellow everyone looked up to - and not just in New York City. Even today, in the shadow of the highly politicized - and phony - 9/11 Commission, which has worked tirelessly to blame any available conservative for the terror attacks while conveniently ignoring all five separate warning incidents by al Qaeda terrorists under Clinton-Gore, Mr. Giuliani, in Reaganesque fashion, put the blame for the attacks squarely on the terrorists, instead of wasting time lashing out at his political enemies on the Commission.
With the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the opening of the Memorial to the Greatest Generation in Washington, D.C., and renewed interest everything World War II, it is fitting to note how in pre-War Britain, Winston Churchill was sidelined because he was viewed as overly opinionated and difficult to work with. Parliament and the public changed their minds, of course, once British society was faced with a make-or-break confrontation against Adolf Hitler. At that point, Britain could hardly instate Churchill fast enough to guide that nation through its darkest hours. They recognized, quite correctly, that what they really needed a leader, not a consensus-builder or an intermediary. Important principles about freedom and justice were at stake. Arbitration was not an option.
The measure of a leader has three parts. It entails one part risk-taking, one part vision, and one part self-assurance. There is no room for security-worship if one is going to be a leader.
The belittling of leadership qualities in America and, indeed, the free world, has come about slowly. The first tell-tale signs surfaced in the usual place - the schools. In the 1950s, this nation's guidance counselors (back when they actually were concerned with academics) started advising students to put security before everything else, to aim for certain jobs because there were plenty of vacancies, or because the pay was good, or because there was less chance of unemployment. It became rare for a counselor to urge students to pursue a career for its intellectual, spiritual, or emotional satisfaction, especially if that choice involved risks.
Such defensive counsel, of course, did not help produce a leadership mind-set - and we started paying for it in the 1960s and 70s, when then-college-age Baby Boomers (including, sadly, the Reagans' own children, Patti and Ron) began responding to world problems with a pack-mentality instead of approaching issues on a rational, principled basis. Their protests and demonstrations were more about bonding with their friends and blowing off steam than any expression of well-considered thought.
That turned out to be only the beginning. Simultaneous with the idolization of security was the tendency, also beginning in the mid-1950s, to level down requirements so that the "slowest" wouldn't have their personalities warped (today called "loss of self-esteem"). This lowering of standards was the first step in a disastrous march toward mandated mediocrity. What 60s-era youth needed was a little humility; instead their heads were so swelled that they were emboldened to think they knew everything, without the benefit of facts or experience.
Then, the very term democracy was redefined. The leftist takeover of, first, our education system and, after that, the media finally succeeded in refashioning democracy to mean "total equality of results and outcomes," which of course was pure Marxism - on the order of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." This superficial interpretation of democracy was increasingly served up to students until by the 1980s it was an article of faith.
Young people are never very good with subtleties, but in the 1950s and 60s their teachers made sure they would miss the point that the Declaration of Independence says that we are created free and equal, not that we are born free and equal - which is altogether different. Obviously, not everyone has a great singing voice, or a model's physique, or Einstein's intellect. It is equality of opportunity that matters, and that is what the Constitution was written to accomplish. In order to take advantage of that kind of equality, however, requires individual effort, self-reliance, sacrifice, vision and self-discipline. Those who excel in all these departments, like Ronald Reagan, become leaders. Wealth and luck alone will not suffice.
But the mental "health"-oriented school counselors who emerged in the late 70s actually took pains to discourage individualism, calling it "romantic" and "outmoded." They emphasized teamwork over individual effort, indulgence over initiative, and accommodation over confrontation - even if it meant relinquishing one's principles and core beliefs. "Going along to get along" - the heart and soul of progressive education's socialization movement - wound up valuing consensus over what used to be called "thinking for oneself." Even individual desks were exchanged for long tables, where every pupil could compare notes and work with all the other students. This became known as "cooperative learning."
Once youngsters succumbed to the groupie mode of thinking, however, concepts about self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and sacrifice were compromised. More importantly, these concepts tended not to be passed along to Generation X. Today, it is not unusual for the adult children of the Boomers to come back to live with their parents. They can't make it on their own - and don't want to.
Today, even if a child's personality profile (to which school officials have copious access) indicates the student to be a self-starter and self-motivated, the pupil is channeled into activities that demand collaboration, cooperation, conformity and consensus. While lip-service is given to individuality, imagination and ingenuity, in reality these traits are suppressed. One can be imaginative only in the context of the group - for example, in a group science project. Too often, individual creativity and resourcefulness are equated with egotism, eccentricity and self-centeredness.
Anyone who feels it necessary to "shine" can pursue sports or entertainment. These are the only venues, apparently, in which drive, boldness and determination are deemed appropriate.
All this, of course, amounts to an utter denial of the American dream. How many, under such an indoctrination process, are going to become leaders - or even recognize a leader should they encounter one? A "leadership" personality today viewed as egocentric, arrogant, or - worst of all - "not a team player."
But men like Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Rudolph Giuliani, and Mahatma Gandhi were not "team players" - unless it suited them. They called the shots, not the other way around, and today's imitators find it difficult to measure up.
Amid all the noisy chatter in the 1950s and 60s about resistance to communism, Americans silently surrendered to two of its central principles: economic interest, or security ("It's about the economy, Stupid…"), and moral relativity, the idea that "right and wrong" are dependent on culture, place and time.
No wonder that by election year 1992, polls were finding that the public had largely turned a blind to Bill Clinton's personal behavior, as long as the economy seemed to remain intact. Of course, by then, most were so uneducated they didn't realize it takes roughly seven years before any new economic policy is felt by the man-in-the-street; that President Clinton was, in fact, capitalizing on the gains made under Reaganomics - essentially by leaving the economy alone.
In an ironic twist, it is no longer religion that can be called "the opium of the people"; it is security that has become America's narcotic of choice. Henry M. Wriston rightly insisted that we will not get boldness, or dedication, or responsible behavior from those who choose as much popularity as possible as a way of life. Populations that sell individualism short cease to be masters of the State, they become instead its wards, Wriston said. Once individuals start deferring to special interest groups to articulate their causes for big bucks, government stops listening to mere individuals. When that happens, government defaults to guardianship, as is increasingly the case in every aspect of American life. Democracy, such as the Founding Fathers envisioned it, is on the way out.
Those with even a little sophistication always knew that winning elections is often more about special-interest hobnobbing than leadership. The turning point came when candidates began to actually fear taking a definitive stand on the issues. Two smart-aleck journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein proved, through the Watergate fiasco - in reality, payback for Richard Nixon's having uncovered the traitor, Alger Hiss - proved that the leftist press finally had amassed enough power to tell the American people what they were going to think about and for how long. About the same time, a massive consolidation scheme occurred in the largest teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA), under the cover of promising educators more pay. With larger annual dues the union was able to front leftist causes and candidates and bring in counterculture curriculums.
Suddenly, it required legions of public relations "handlers" to script a candidate's every speech, interview and "photo opportunity." Carrying an identical message to all audiences, regardless of whom it might "offend," was a virtual death wish. It required a huge leap of confidence, risk-taking, and vision for individuals like Ronald Reagan and Rudolph Giuliani to flout convention and actually mean what they said and say what they meant - every time. And on those rare occasions when that didn't happen, such as the Iran-Contra incident - brought about when then-President Reagan was sent a video showing the torture-killing of prisoner William Buckley - Mr. Reagan regretted he hadn't remained true to his instincts.
What Mr. Reagan's instincts told him was to act in the spirit of the Framers of our Constitution. They thought "outside the box," as we say, and created something unique. But to make it "stick," they knew that education was key. Every generation would have to develop a mind-set of self-reliance, self-determination, principle and individualism, be taught to take the long view and to value the precarious adventure of freedom over limiting notions like tenure, security, and guarantees.
Possibly it is because, in America, poverty is regarded as the ultimate evil that security has come to be worshipped. For this reason, it is often charged by Third World nations that democracy can only flourish among the relatively wealthy. But those who wrote the blueprint for our democratic pattern were not leaders of a wealthy nation. As Henry Wriston noted, we would have to describe this country and its people as predominantly poor in the 1700s, although with great natural resources. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was born into a poor family, the son of an alcoholic father. If ever there was a "common man," it was Ronald Reagan.
But born as he was in 1912, he had the benefit of an era which still recognized that nothing in the Bill of Rights promises the freedoms outlined there can be enjoyed in comfort. He knew that speaking out on controversial matters would be uncomfortable. It is all well and good to combine energies, as he did as a member (and later, head) of the Screen Actors Guild. But along the way, when many colleagues were drawn into communist and socialist doctrines, he decided that leadership required him to step out. He could not, in good conscience, voice only those opinions or ideas favored by the group - even if it meant his career.
George Romney, a Reagan appointee in California, warned Americans back in 1959, in an address to the Commonwealth Club, that unless individuals started fighting for their citizenship, we would find ourselves enslaved, first by power groups, and then by an all-powerful State that exercises our inalienable rights for us, supposedly to protect us from the excesses of other power groups.
George Romney was right. I was there in the 1970s when teachers believed they would make more money and be assured of ongoing job security if they had a super-strong collective bargaining agent. The glorified scam artists at NEA played on fears about lower-paid, younger teachers taking over the jobs of more experienced ones by creating an "us-against-them" mentality. The union, which was at that time still operated separate local, state, and national membership options, shoved a continuous stream of inflammatory flyers in teachers' mailboxes that vastly exaggerated the divide between administrators and teachers, parents and teachers. Once they had incited teachers to fever pitch, the union demanded mandatory membership at all three levels - and instituted an equally mandatory leftist political agenda that in the end hurt both the students and teachers themselves.
Today, many teachers are reportedly outraged that they are involuntarily bankrolling candidates they don't like, and subsidizing rallies for causes like abortion and gay rights. But the die was cast long ago when teachers stopped thinking for themselves in the 1970s and allowed power brokers to dictate viewpoints. Today, the NEA management exercises all their members' inalienable rights for them.
Ronald Reagan's insight about the relationship between individualism and leadership has been proved correct over and over. Even as more rules and regulations are continuously generated at the behest of power-hungry interest groups bent on keeping the hand of government firmly planted on the backs of the average taxpayer - in direct opposition to the tenets of Reaganism, which centered on getting government "off people's backs" - Mr. Reagan's political friends and enemies alike praise him for his sincerity, integrity and commitment to principle.
Whether it's property rights over environmental extremism, or something as basic as safeguarding marriage, today's political process has morphed into an impediment to autonomy and majority self-rule. Yet, praise for Mr. Reagan pours in from all quarters. I suspect that is because somewhere, deep in the American collective memory, resides an understanding that this was not the way things were supposed to be in a democratic republic.
May the Gipper rest in peace.
© 2004 Beverly Eakman - All Rights
Beverly Eakman is an Educator, 9 years: 1968-1974, 1979-1981. Specialties: English and Literature.
Science Editor, Technical Writer and Editor-in-Chief of official newspaper, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974-1979. Technical piece, "David, the Bubble Baby," picked up by popular press and turned into a movie starring John Travolta.
Chief speech writer, National Council for Better Education, 1984-1986; for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 1986-1987; for the Voice of America Director, 1987-1989; and for U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald R. Regier, 1991-1993.
Author: 3 books on education and data-trafficking
since 1991, including the internationally acclaimed Cloning
of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education. Executive
Director, National Education Consortium. Website: BeverlyE.com
"Once youngsters succumbed to the groupie mode of thinking, however, concepts about self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and sacrifice were compromised."