EVEN AS THE LAST OF THE TRIBUTES to Ronald Reagan straggle out, there's an elementary fact about his presidency that anyone who didn't live through it might not have picked up from the coverage. It's the fact that, after years and years of frightening drift, suddenly you could tell that someone in Washington was steering the ship.
It felt that way from the moment of Reagan's inauguration. No sooner had the new president uttered the oath of office, than at long last the American hostages in Tehran were set free. Literally, at midday on Inauguration Day, the 52 Americans held prisoner for 444 days by a regime that daily reviled the United States as the Great Satan were let go. And this was no dumb luck. Informed accounts of the Algiers negotiations for the hostages' release confirm that fear of what Reagan might do--combined with a continuing desire to humiliate Carter--governed the Iranians' timing.
Nor was this a one-time success. The same firmness and clarity that caused candidate Reagan, and president-elect Reagan, to call the hostage-takers "criminals and kidnappers" would cause President Reagan a few months later to fire 12,000 air traffic controllers who launched an illegal strike. Four hours into the PATCO strike, he gave them 48 hours to return to work. In explaining his action, the president read on the air the brief oath each controller had taken in assuming his job, an oath in which he promised not to strike. When the 48-hour deadline passed, Reagan did exactly what he had said. And he never backed down.
Thus, within seven months of coming to Washington, Reagan had bracingly taken command. Ordinary people started to feel that effective action wasn't beyond the president after all.
TO APPRECIATE THIS, you have to realize how inured Americans had become to national turmoil and disaster. And that's not just a reference to the Carter years--uneasy as they were, and culminating as they did in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 (one month after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran) and, on the home front, in inflation over 13 percent. No, the Carter years were more or less in line with what had come before.
The early 1970s were dominated by the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of a president, and the bitter American defeat in Vietnam, with its 57,000 American dead and legions of refugees. For that matter, what came before that was the ur-troubled-decade, the 1960s, with its annual race riots (the "long hot summers" whose death toll totaled about 300), the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the convulsions of the war protests and the counterculture.
If you were in your early thirties when Reagan came to office, you'd never experienced American politics free for long from drama and violence. You certainly couldn't remember a successful president.
Reagan wasn't a magician. The United States suffered its share of setbacks on his watch--notably the taking of more American hostages in Lebanon (and the torturing to death of the CIA station chief there), the killing of 241 Marines at their barracks in Beirut by Islamic radicals, and of course the Iran-contra affair. Yet right from the start it was plain this was a sure-footed leader--and gallant to boot, as we learned when he narrowly escaped an assassin's bullet just two months into his first term. He laid to rest the fear that the presidency had become an impossibly unwieldy job--as Rudy Giuliani did for the job of mayor of New York. Even as the historic successes of Ronald Reagan's presidency were still in the future and beyond most people's wildest dreams, it was a great relief when the 40th president took the helm.
Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.