As we celebrate the 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan, those who knew and admired him remember his consistent optimism. Reagan was no Pollyanna, but he saw that the best days of our country lay ahead of us.
In his first inaugural address he spoke encouraging words to a nation that felt it was in an unstoppable decline: "With all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams."
He saw an exceedingly burdensome and bureaucratic government as a barrier to these dreams. To President Reagan, reducing the size of government was not weakening the nation; it was unleashing the American spirit.
He knew that restoring freedom and opportunity in America would have far-reaching consequences. Not only would the American economy be reinvigorated and job growth restarted, but the world would again be able to look at the United States as an example of what a free people can accomplish.
By 1980, the Cold War had dragged on for decades. Foreign policy analysts and media figures assumed that the communist bloc would be a permanent fixture. Some portrayed the United States and the Soviet Union as moral equivalents and ignored the repression and violence inherent in the Warsaw Pact governments.
Reagan rejected this view saying that, "The only morality they [the Soviets] recognize, is what will advance the cause of socialism." It was a grim view of our communist adversaries, but it was anchored by an optimism that the people living in those countries yearned to breathe free and would take off their shackles if the United States stood up for freedom.
Indeed, Reagan's view of the communist system did not prevent him from dealing with his Soviet counterparts with honesty and kindness. Despite ominous warnings from his political opponents, President Reagan was not a "cowboy" looking to start a nuclear war. Instead, he clearly saw that steadfast opposition would cause the Soviet bloc to crumble and radically reduce the threat of World War III.
Even in his most famous anti-communist speech, Reagan appealed to the better natures of the regime. He prefaced the famous "tear down this wall" by calling on Gorbachev to bring about peace and prosperity. He believed that resolution of the Cold War was possible and his efforts opened the door to lasting peace.
Today, we face similar difficulties both here and abroad. Our government debt is climbing uncontrollably and foreign nations, both friends and enemies, wonder whether the United States can still provide leadership.
Reagan knew that our country risked much by ignoring our debt: "You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?"
During his administration, national security priorities prevented successful debt control. Now however, the debt is itself a threat to our economic and national security. But our debt does not define us as a nation.
I have confidence that we can come together here in Washington to meet our fiscal obligations and restore confidence in our government. We can never get there by restraining the ingenuity and the creativity of the American people. We can't get there by constructing a more sophisticated bureaucracy. We get there by freeing individual Americans whether they are starting a new small business, working hard in a factory, or healing patients in a hospital.
Ultimately, a strong and renewed America will remind the world that the best government is one by the people and for the people.
In his farewell remarks, President Reagan left us with these words: "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." He knew that his role on the American stage was coming to an end, but he also knew that the American people would carry our nation forward to a better day.