The Magazine

A Democratic Statesman

Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By IRVING KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

December 7, 1988

As Ronald Reagan prepares to leave the White House, he also leaves those of us who study American politics and American history with an interesting question: What is it that has made him so successful a president -- indeed so successful a democratic statesman?

A successful democratic statesman is one whose tenure in office is seen by his countrymen as representing a permanent contribution to the shaping of our democratic destiny. He is viewed as having expanded democratic horizons while nourishing the democratic spirit and reinforcing the popular commitment to self-government.

It is astonishing how few such presidents we have had. And it is surprisingly difficult to isolate the qualities that distinguish those few, as against the others.

Apart from the Founding Fathers, who were a special case, I think there have been only four truly successful democratic presidents who were also democratic statesmen: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. There have been other very good presidents, of course, and other estimable presidencies, but -- and it may just have been a case of unpropitious circumstances -- none that achieved this particular distinction.

Ronald Reagan, I think it is fair to say, is the president who has inaugurated the post-New Deal era in American history. Not by repudiating the past -- Americans are very traditional people who do not repudiate their past easily. This attachment to tradition is the main anchor of democratic stability, no matter how turbulent the times or how frenetic our politics.

No, what Ronald Reagan has done is to incorporate our past into a new perspective on the American future, of which he has given us the outlines. Only the outlines -- perhaps out of courtesy to his vice president and our president-elect, he has left us with much filling-in to do. But the outlines are clear enough -- a rediscovery of the importance of individual self-reliance, without which programs incorporating political compassion end up in perpetual frustration; a renewed emphasis on those moral values that bind individuals to their families and communities and that give ultimate meaning to their lives; an affirmation of individual enterprise, energized by low rates of taxation, as the key to economic growth; and, perhaps most important, a revival of that spirit of patriotism that enables Americans to confront the world with a vigorous self-confidence that we once seemed to have lost forever.

And it is not only in the United States that he has inaugurated this new era, but for much of the world as well. The impact of his presidency is being felt within the Communist world and in the nations of the developing world, as well as the democracies -- something no one would have thought possible only a few years ago. In nation after nation, a new economic environment is emerging. In accomplishing this, President Reagan has been not just a successful democratic statesman for the United States but an exemplar of the successful democratic statesman for his world. In this respect, he may be the very first.

So, thank you, Mr. President, for your service to our country and to our world. It has been a privilege to be a witness to your eight years in office.

Irving Kristol is editor of the Public Interest. He delivered this tribute at a 1988 American Enterprise Institute dinner in honor of Ronald Reagan.