A Shining City on a Hill

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get there. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Farewell Address to the Nation, January 11, 1989

He was the greatest president of my lifetime, perhaps the greatest of all time. He loved his country at a time when patriotism was passé. He tended the sacred fire of liberty through the long dark night of collectivism and ignited bonfires of freedom across the globe. He stood up to an evil empire that murdered and enslaved countless millions and swept it into the dustbin of history. He “turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom”. He imagined America as a shining city on a hill and a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples everywhere.

When Ronald Wilson Reagan won the presidency in 1980, America was at its nadir of self-doubt and decline; her enemies at the height of arrogance and power. The office of the President was tarnished after Nixon resigned in disgrace. His successor Ford, tainted by the stigma of Nixon’s pardon and his bizarre remark during a presidential debate that the people of Poland enjoyed the right of self-determination, lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, an obscure peanut farmer who ran for president on a platform of not lying. Carter tried to micro-manage the federal government and bungled the job.

At home, oil shortages compounded by price controls and other economic missteps by the Carter Administration produced gasoline shortages and long lines at the gas pump. The Carter Administration persuaded the Federal Reserve to increase the money supply, spiking interest rates to a staggering 21.5%, the highest level since the Civil War. Inflation pushed Americans into higher and higher tax brackets, with the highest personal income tax bracket at 70%.

Meanwhile, America and the Western democracies were facing a crisis of confidence. A growing number of intellectuals on both the Left and Right predicted the inevitable triumph of Soviet Communism. U.S. troops suffered a humiliating retreat from Saigon in 1975. Communism spread throughout Southeast Asia, unleashed genocide in Cambodia and enslaved millions, while media and college campus liberals opposed the struggle to preserve freedom and prevent mass murder. Instead of admitting they were profoundly wrong about Communist aggression, the liberals promoted the preposterous idea that somehow we were to blame for the killing fields.

Like a proverbial babe in the woods, Jimmy Carter espoused a foreign policy centered on human rights. It sounded good in theory, but in practice it undermined flawed allies and ignored vastly greater abuses by hostile totalitarian regimes. Carter was shaken and stunned by Soviet expansionism and brutality in Afghanistan. Under Carter’s watch, the Soviet Union — both directly and through puppet states — established Marxist regimes in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua, and supported terrorist attempts to destabilize and demoralize the West. The Brezhnev Doctrine maintained that Communist revolutions were irreversible, and no one could point to a counter-example. Every effort to throw off the yoke of Soviet hegemony was brutally crushed: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980.

Our most humiliating moment occurred when Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for over a year, while the Carter Administration vacillated indecisively. Years of neglecting the military came home to roost as a dramatic move to free the hostages ended in disaster in the Iranian desert.

On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. The Iranian government did not wait for Ronald Reagan’s response to the hostage crisis; they freed all 52 Americans on the morning of his inauguration. With the hostage crisis behind us, Reagan immediately took decisive action to tackle our immediate economic problems. More importantly, he undertook the difficult task of restoring America’s pride, by reminding us of our historical purpose.

Reagan’s first executive order abolished price controls on oil and gasoline. This ended the gas lines as the short-term spike in prices encouraged oil production and prompted consumers to reduce demand. Reagan did not stop there. He eliminated environmental and regulatory obstacles to domestic oil production, to reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers, i.e., the OPEC cartel. He persuaded Saudi Arabia to increase oil production from 2 million to 9 million barrels per day. These moves paid handsome dividends. The sharp drop in crude oil prices lowered gasoline prices below $1.00 per gallon. The increase in domestic oil production and from Saudi Arabia effectively smashed the OPEC cartel’s ability to fix worldwide oil prices. Finally, the sharp plunge in oil prices crippled the bellicose Soviet Union, which derived most of its income from oil production.

Tackling the double-digit inflation he inherited from Jimmy Carter, Reagan supported Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to tighten the money supply. This triggered a brief recession, but ended inflation as a national issue. To revive the sluggish economy, Reagan pushed his 1981 tax reform program through a recalcitrant and skeptical Congress. Reagan’s tax plan slashed personal income tax rates by 25% over three years and indexed tax rates to stop inflation from pushing taxpayers into higher brackets. His 1986 tax relief act lowered the top personal income tax rate from 70% to 28%.

Reagan’s economic program launched the greatest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history. Save for a brief recession from 1990-91 that coincided with the Persian Gulf War, the United States enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth lasting from 1982 to the present day. Reagan’s detractors try to belittle this achievement, pointing to the large deficits incurred during the Reagan years. While it is a historical fact that government spending exceeded revenues by $1.4 trillion during Reagan’s years in office, it was the Democratic Congress that resisted the Reagan Administration’s efforts to cut domestic spending. In the end, the deficits helped rebuild our military, which had been weakened and neglected during the Carter years, and helped bring down the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.

Reagan’s critics savagely attacked his uncompromising stand against Soviet aggression. They denounced his blunt assessment of the Soviet Union as an evil empire destined for the dustbin of history. They said his views were simplistic and dangerous. They portrayed him as a warmonger and madman whose belligerence toward the Soviets heightened the risk of nuclear war. But history has shown that Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

In truth, Reagan was a visionary and a great champion of peace. He recognized that détente represented steady decline at best and appeasement at worst. He saw the sheer lunacy of our nuclear strategy doctrine, Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD, which held that the best way to avoid nuclear destruction was to leave both sides defenseless against nuclear annihilation. Of course, the MAD doctrine also left us defenseless against the growing possibility of nuclear blackmail by terrorists or the growing risk of an accidental launch of a nuclear missile, thousands of which were aimed at the U.S. The possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange was brought home when the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean commercial aircraft that allegedly strayed too close to Soviet airspace, killing 269 people. After denouncing that act of aggression, Reagan asked what if they made a similar mistake and launched a nuclear missile in response to a false alarm about a nuclear strike.

Reagan knew that bullies are cowards who run away when confronted by strength and resolve. He challenged the Soviet leaders to pit their system of slavery against freedom. He presented a contest they could not win and a challenge they could not ignore. Who can forget his impassioned plea at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987: “General Secretary Gorbachev, 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!” Within two years, the hated Wall lay in rubble and Eastern Europe was free at last.

Ronald Reagan sought the presidency to achieve a few vitally important things: he wanted to revitalize the economy and reverse the tide of Communism. It is not hyperbole to say that on both counts he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. He engineered an economic recovery that continues to this day and he won the Cold War without firing a shot.

Reagan’s remarkable accomplishments were achieved in spite of strident opposition from a skeptical Democrat-controlled Congress. He succeeded against the predictions of professional pundits who saw Reagan’s optimism and took him for a simpleton. His critics were continually dumbfounded by each success, which they could only attribute to dumb luck. Reagan proved his critics wrong so often that it is no surprise they seek to belittle or falsify his achievements. During the Cold War, Reagan’s critics believed that the triumph of Communism was inevitable. After Reagan won the Cold War, those same critics now argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable and our military buildup an unnecessary waste. Which was like saying it was a mistake to fight World War II since it was inevitable that Hitler would commit suicide in a bunker in 1945.

Margaret Thatcher knew better: “Ronald Reagan set out to challenge everything that the liberal political elite of America accepted and sought to propagate. They believed that America was doomed to decline; he believed it was destined for further greatness. They imagined that sooner or later there would be a convergence between the free Western system and the socialist Eastern system, and that some kind of social democratic outcome was inevitable. He, by contrast, considered that socialism was a patent failure which should be cast onto the trash heap of history. They thought that the problem with America was the American people, though they didn’t quite put it like that. He thought that the problem with America was the American government, and he did put it just like that.”

Reagan was not necessarily smarter than his critics, yet he proved them wrong time and again, and about the most important things. Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I see so far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Ronald Reagan humbly acknowledged his debt to the greater wisdom of the Founding Fathers: “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation, the principles that have guided us for two centuries.” He succeeded where others failed because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

* * *

I will never forget the moment I first heard the news of President Reagan’s attempted assassination. I was a first year law student at Columbia Law School, and was rushing to class when I saw one of my classmates standing in the corridor looking stunned. He was one of several Mormon students in my law school class whom I knew in passing, he was always cheery and upbeat. But on this day he was in shock. I asked what happened. He didn’t respond right away, and then he realized I was talking to him.

“What happened, Dan?”

“The President was just shot,” he said vacantly.

I had a million questions. “When?” “What happened?” “Is he all right?” He looked at me with watery eyes and did not respond.

By this time, my liberal classmates came over to find out what was going on. As soon as I communicated the news, one of them started to cheer and roar with laughter: “He’s dead?” he asked with undisguised glee. Another shouted, “Yes!” and started yelling to everyone: “Hey, did you hear the great news? Ray-gun’s shot! I hope he dies!”

My Mormon classmate looked blankly at their gloating faces, as if he could not comprehend the words. There was no hint of anger in his expression. He looked at them, not with anger and rage, but with sorrow and a touch of pity. Then he walked away without saying a word. Like so many other ill-informed and self-important law students, I had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and considered myself a liberal Democrat. But I became a huge Ronald Reagan fan that day.

* * *

In the world’s eyes, it must seem a tragedy and a cruel hoax that the man known as the Great Communicator has been reduced to an inarticulate shell of his once eloquent self. But Ronald Reagan knew that his talent with words was a gift from One who is Author of all wisdom. All of us who heard him speak, all of us who drew courage and comfort from his words were blessed that he made such excellent use of his gifts when America sorely needed a Great Communicator.

On November 5, 1994, President Reagan wrote his poignant farewell letter to the nation he loved, in which he revealed his affliction with Alzheimer’s disease. I knew the ordeal his family, especially Nancy, would face. A few years before, my mom had been diagnosed with the same disease and I had just gone through the worst moment of her illness.

My mother became a U.S. citizen because of Ronald Reagan. She came to this country from Cuba in November 1955, not for political reasons, but to marry my dad. She never showed any interest in American politics, although she hated Communism for what it did to her family and country. She was impressed by Ronald Reagan’s decisive actions when the Communists invaded Grenada. Her admiration for President Reagan inspired her to become a U.S. citizen. She voted for the first time in 1984, proudly marking her ballot for Ronald Reagan.

The first sign that something was wrong with my mom was her loss of short-term memory. One day, she stopped remembering things. She would ask me a question and respond to the answer. A short time later, she had forgotten the conversation and asked me the same question. Her recollection of events from her childhood was unaffected, as if those memories were imprinted onto a different part of the brain that still functioned perfectly. It annoyed me to have to repeat myself, and at times I lost patience and snapped: “I already explained this. Why can’t you listen?” This would bring tears and made me feel like a heel for my impatience.

My mom’s memory and cognitive ability deteriorated steadily until she could no longer take care of herself. I sent her to live with my aunt and uncle in Florida, who were retired and could take better care of her. Those of us with elderly parents know the truth of the expression, “The child becomes the parent.” In my case, I felt my mom slowly slip away on an inverted journey past second childhood and infancy. Each day, my mom’s vocabulary would diminish. One day she talked about making a ham and cheese sandwich; the next day she had forgotten the word for cheese. I’d repeat the word over and over, but it was gone forever.

So it was, each day brought a further retreat down the long slide to oblivion. I could only watch her slip away one word and one face at a time. One day, someone asked my mom if she remembered who I was. “Of course,” she said, “the day I forget my own son is the day I no longer exist.” I knew that day would come, but I was unprepared when I showed up in my aunt’s home after a year’s absence and my mom no longer recognized me. I held her hands, embraced her and said “Mom, it’s me, your son.” She asked me how I was, politely and without recognition. Her illness added my face and my name to its long list of spoils, and there was little left of her precious self to claim.

I went to my mother’s apartment to check her things, the apartment where I spent most of my childhood. I’d been paying rent and collecting her mail since my mother moved to Florida. To my great joy and disbelief, my mother was there and she was her old self. She explained that her memory problems resulted from an adverse reaction to medication for a misdiagnosed nervous disorder. I thought I should be angry at her doctors’ gross negligence, but I was too happy to have my mom back after such a long time. We talked late into the night about everything that had happened over the past seven years. We mourned the passing of beloved relatives and rejoiced over happy events, weddings and the blessings of children in our large extended family. I said goodnight and went to sleep in my old room, surrounded by familiar mementos of a life I thought was lost forever. It felt good to be home again.

I woke up in a strange town, an unfamiliar place that housed a life that took too many wrong turns and too often seemed a bad dream. I woke up in the town where I have worked and lived for nearly five years, a town that will never be home. I woke up with the sickening realization that my joyous reunion with my mom was only a dream, a cruel hoax borne of longing for what was irretrievably lost.

My mom lay dying in her nursing home when I said my last goodbye. I told her I would return in a few weeks, but I sensed it would not be that long. Three days later, she slipped the surly bonds of earth, passing quietly in her sleep. My memories and a few yellowing photographs are all I have left of her, and each year the memories grow dimmer and dimmer. Someday my own memory will fail and, one by one, the lights will go out until the darkness finally comes and I will follow in her wake across the waters of oblivion. Her disease was a harbinger of the journey we all must take.

But I refuse to believe death and oblivion mark the end of the journey. I believe that the soul survives after the frail corruptible body passes away. Death is not the end, but a new beginning. I believe my dream of being reunited with my mom was not a cruel hoax, but a foreshadowing of a blessed reunion we will someday share with all our loved ones when we meet again in a holy and mystical promised land we’ll recognize as home.

Somewhere in a shining city on a hill.

February 2001

One Response to A Shining City on a Hill

  1. […] Indeed. Carter’s policies bequeathed gas lines and double-digit inflation at home, and a humiliating year-long Iranian hostage crisis and a belligerent Soviet adversary abroad. How Reagan handled these crises and launched the biggest economic expansion in U.S. history is a story that deserves to be remembered and retold. My own poor effort in this regard is documented here. […]

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