Thursday, August 19, 2010

A quick look back to discern the path forward. . .

There comes a time when it just feels right to take a quick backward glance and remember what the future might look like. 

I stumbled over this YouTube video of Ronald Reagan spliced and edited in against today's leading liberal voices.  The contrast is certainly stunning.

Don't underestimate the power and the intelligence associated with simplicity and a shoot-from-the-hip brand of honesty that characterized Reagan and other great leaders of our time.  Yes, even Reagan was tagged with the Iran-Contra scandal during his administration, certainly tarnishing his truth-telling reputation, but despite it he had what every President yearns for -- the almost universal love and respect of his countrymen.

Reagan for me was a pillar of strength and boldness.  When his advisors strongly urged him not to name the Evil Empire and associate it with the Soviet Communists, he said the words anyway.  When they urged caution as he stood at the Berlin Wall and challenged Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall," they cringed.

When asked about it later, Reagan simply explained, "I wanted to do some things differently, like speaking the truth about [the Soviets] for a change, rather than hiding reality behind the niceties of diplomacy."  Reflecting back on that speech he thought it was one of the most important things he had ever done in his life.  He followed his instincts.  He answered the urgings of his heart and soul.  He had a profound belief grounded in the faith he had in liberty and freedom.  He wanted to support "those fighting for freedom and against communism wherever we found them."

Before he gave what later came to be known as the "Evil Empire Speech," Reagan went to England and delivered perhaps the most energy-charged speech reaffirming the quest for freedom we have ever heard.  When he concluded the chamber erupted in sustained applause and a standing ovation for several minutes.  As he stood before a joint session of Parliament, he said these immortal words still ringing in my ears down through the years.  The words should supercharge our thinking today:

"During the dark days of the Second World War, when this island was incandescent with courage, Winston Churchill exclaimed about Britain's adversaries, 'What kind of a people do they think we are?'  Well, Britain's adversaries found out what extraordinary people the British are.

"But all the democracies (of that time) paid a terrible price for allowing the dictators to underestimate us.  We dare not make that mistake again.

"So let us ask ourselves, 'What kind of people do we think we are?' And let us answer, 'Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.' " 

The world was Reagan's constituency.  Some thought he would surely incite World War III with his passionate rhetoric.  However, combining forces with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and enlisting the moral support and suasion of Pope John Paul II, they ended the cold war together without a shot ever being fired.  Like George W. Bush years later of whom it was said he was "misunderestimated," Reagan had the rare quality that so endeared him to everyone -- common sense truths spoken from the heart.  Like the ancient Apostle Paul, Ronald Reagan knew and believed the truth could set everyone free.  (John 8:32).

His audience for the "Evil Empire Speech" was the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983.  It was an instant classic, though it was panned and ridiculed throughout liberal quarters worldwide.  The Communists hated it, the liberals criticized it, and most Americans loved it for its courage and forthright declarations of what we all hold dearest.  He quoted C. S. Lewis:

"It was C. S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable Screwtape Letters, wrote:  'The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. . .'

"Some would have us accept [the Soviets] at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses.  But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly.  It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.

"So I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.  You know, I've always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church.  So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride -- the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

"I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration's efforts, to keep America strong and free while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination.

"While America's military strength is important, let me add here that I've always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might.  The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith."

Reagan, ah sweet, sweet Reagan.  His words are like pure water to the thirsting soul today.  He mastered simple words with clear meanings.  He was totally honest in his expressions of what was in his heart.  He was trustworthy, as the Soviets eventually learned over time during his administration.  Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, became one of his greatest admirers, and had a front row seat at his funeral services, seated beside Margaret Thatcher.  What a remarkable journey those three leaders took together, aided by the moral compass of the Pope.  It was a golden age for freedom's gains.

Now, we are threatened yet again, but not by foreign powers this time.  Instead, our nation is threatened by the swift advance, not of armies upon our lands and cities, but by the enemy from within.  The speed with which it has happened, this invasion of our wealth as a nation and the ensuing diminished freedoms we have sacrificed individually to our shameful national debt, has been largely self-inflicted.  Osama bin Laden could not have done it better.  We are faced now with tough choices.

Anatoly Shcharansky was a Russian dissident incarcerated in Permanent Labor Camp 35 in the Ural Mountains when Ronald Reagan became President.  Shcharansky had a bad habit in Soviet Russia.  Like his counterpart, Andrei Sakharov, they simply couldn't stop telling the truth.  Reagan, when he began his series of bold speeches against the evils of totalitarianism and Communism inspired and gave hope to the prisoners of the Soviet regime.  They found their hope in Reagan, hope to survive, to live to fight another day for not only their lives, but for the freedom of their homeland.

Ronald Reagan loved the truth.  He thought truth was the only sure foundation upon which a society could be built.  Truth, he believed, would endure forever.  Lies would die.  For too long he thought lies had been told in the political world, and he saw them as a cancer that could only be eradicated in the naked light of the sunshine of truth.  For Reagan, the world was a very black and white proposition.  Forget nuances, he would have none of it. 

Peggy Noonan said, "He wanted to put words into the air that were honest and have them take the place of other words that were not."  Such a simple idea.  She used to write his speeches.  She knows whereof she speaks.

Shcharansky later changed his name to Natan Sharansky and moved to Israel.  He spoke of his time in the Soviet gulag prison:  "We would overhear guards, we would overhear radio attacks on Reagan, we would hear that Reagan was attacked in Pravda. . .  I think the most important step in the cold war and the defeat of the Soviet empire was his words and his actions at the beginning of his presidency."

Later after his release, urged and pressured upon the Soviets by the Reagan administration, Sharansky was invited to the White House to meet President Reagan.  "President Reagan understood the nature of a totalitarian regime.  He believed freedom is something that belongs to all the people, and if you encourage it and support it you can win.  He had very healthy instincts about it.  He was a fresh change after Nixon's attempts at detente and Carter, who talked well but couldn't link practical policy to his talk.  When it came to action there was nothing -- and then came Reagan, and Star Wars -- Star Wars was a way of talking to the Soviet Union!  And he linked the fate of dissidents to the policy of the United States of America."

Reagan simply refused to lie for expediency.  Nine months after Reagan left the White House for the last time, the Berlin Wall crashed almost overnight.  But it is wrong to say it "fell."  It was pushed.

You can fast forward thirty years to today now.  Substitute and update our foreign enemies as you will -- they certainly do exist -- but be forewarned.  Our domestic enemies are just as real today.  I have said before, and I say it again, the political pendulum swings to and fro, this way and that, left and right.  It will swing again this November.  In the aftermath of this flirtacious dance we have been doing for the last eighteen months with escalating entitlement programs and mounting unsustainable debt, do not lose faith in America's ability to surmount its challenges and right itself again.

All that's needed is a little truth telling and a handful of transformative and courageous leaders who will act on that truth.

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