With our country currently wading through the miasma of another potential Impeachment inquiry, it can be difficult to remember a time when the President of the United States could rise above his circumstance and truly lead a country and move it forward. As it stands, this happens to be the 39th anniversary of the election of just such a president.
Thirty nine years ago, Ronald Reagan did what few other men had done in American history. He not only won the presidency, but defeated Jimmy Carter, an incumbent president running for re-election. Carter’s presidency was hamstrung by a myriad of crises and catastrophes, none so embarrassing as the enduring failure to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. He faced adversity in office, but so does every president.
It was in how he approached these issues that we see the most stark contrast between him and Reagan. Reagan ran the White House with his customary aplomb and grace, always seeing the humor in things, even his own assassination attempt.
Some have said before the difference between Carter and Reagan was, if you asked Carter what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a watch. If you asked Reagan was time it was, he say “It’s time to get this country moving again.” Carter was a humble man. A man who believed in hard work and humility. That, after events like the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, maybe the best thing America could do for the world was to just step back and let it be. The well intentioned believe that, if America regresses, other nations will progress and they will progress for the better.
Sadly, he proved just the opposite.
As American leadership and assertiveness disappeared from the world, the primary beneficiaries were dictators and despots. Carter’s early insistence that no military action be taken to free the hostages emboldened Iran to extend their imprisonment. He surrendered the Panama Canal, abandoned key allies and resistance fighters, leaving them to death and dissolution. Thankfully his attempt to withdraw all American forces from South Korea was halted by severe pushback from all corners of the government.
Ronald Reagan had seen enough. As he once quoted Will Rogers, “I never saw anybody challenge Jack Dempsey.” Reagan knew America was good and the Soviets were evil. And good had to win over evil.
There was a great irony in what would follow. As rogue actors and nations across the globe became emboldened to plunge the world into war and chaos, it was Reagan, not Carter, who would be accused of inciting international violence. Reagan insisted that a strong and engaged America would return stability and security to the world. That once these agitators saw that America was willing to act, they’d be less so. This assertive stance was blasted as pugilistic and naïve by most mainstream outlets. It was like a man in a burning building telling a firefighter not to act, lest he spread the flames. Thankfully, Reagan had the confidence and self-assuredness to not lust after the headlines and instead intended to make his case to the American people.
This election of 1980 was the real game changer. Reagan and Carter agreed on nothing. Reagan wanted people to have more, Carter wanted people to have less. Reagan talked about growing hope and opportunity and Carter talked about an era of limitations. Reagan was to defeat the Soviets while Carter bought into the conventional wisdom that the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union were things of permanence. Carter believed in co-existence and Reagan said we could and would transcend the Soviet Union.
Carter’s 1980 platform said government’s most important product was jobs. Reagan’s platform said freedom and free will created hope, opportunity, and jobs. Reagan succeeded at his big goals. Carter failed at his little goals. Reagan has gone down in history as one of our greatest presidents. Carter has gone down in history as one of our worst.
Reagan was poetry in motion, a beautiful symphony of leadership. Carter’s presidency was incoherent, a cacophony of fury, but no pleasing sound.
Time will tell how Donald Trump will be remembered, the full lens of history can take decades to come into focus and some things take longer than others. We can’t say how long it will take for an honest assessment of Trump to be glimpsed, but when it comes to Reagan and Carter, 39 years is more than enough time to see the full picture of two men. One saw hope and the other saw despair. One believed in the future and the other feared it. One man saw a nation on the decline, the other saw a shining city upon a hill.
A city that still shines today.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
Mark Weinberg is an executive speechwriter and corporate communications consultant who served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House and as Director of Public Affairs in the Office of former President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of the bestselling memoir, "Movie Nights with the Reagans" (Simon and Schuster).
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