Jun 08 2004
Mr. PRESIDENT, I rise today to pay tribute to the life and legacy of former President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan served our country with honor and distinction, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to reflect on the contributions he made to our country and the world.
Upon hearing the news of his death, I thought back to the footprints that he left on my memory. He was, indeed, one of the greatest leaders of our time and I was honored to know him.
President Reagan provided our country with an enormous amount of hope following a period of national remorse and confusion about the direction of our country and about its place in the world. Let us not forget the context from which he emerged to seize his place in history and to move the United States forward with a determination and optimism about the future that was so recently lacking. The ghosts of Vietnam haunted our foreign policy, and the specter of Watergate informed our politics.
The election of Ronald Reagan, however, truly changed America. He instilled hope that every American could be optimistic about his or her future; hope that communism would not endure and that freedom and democracy could ultimately vanquish the forces that sought to pull our country, and many others, into the abyss of despair and hostility that permeated much of the world; hope that personal freedom without the encumbrances of big government would revitalize the economy; hope that the rejuvenated armed forces he would lead as Commander-in-Chief could make the United States once again truly the leader of the Free World in an existential struggle against the Soviet Union.
President Reagan's eternal optimism gave our country a renewed sense of self – a belief that the American dream was possible and that every individual had the opportunity to create his or her own success. Ronald Reagan believed that each new day was filled with high purpose and opportunity for accomplishment. He gave America back the hope we had lost for many years.
President Reagan's leadership and courage were central to ending the Cold War. He was certain that freedom and democracy could prevail in all corners of the globe if only the one country with the capacity to do so would step in and show the way.
Many Americans, who were not yet born or were too young to understand, do not appreciate what this man accomplished. The first half of the 20th Century was marked by warfare on a global scale. The First World War – the war to end all wars – had decimated much of Europe. A generation was lost to the trenches and newly introduced technologies of destruction like the machine gun and the tank.
The war that followed, World War II, managed to go well beyond its predecessor, as the failure of European diplomacy once again dragged the continent into the horrors and devastation that man continued to wrought. The epic struggle against the forces of fascism, a struggle we remembered this past weekend with the anniversary of the Normandy landings, was a fight against evil in every sense of the word. Its ending, however, set the stage for a new type of conflict – a conflict that would take the second half of the century to resolve, mercifully without the nuclear war that existed as the logical culmination of the stand-off that came to be known as the Cold War.
The skills, strengths and enormous fortune that kept the Cold War from turning hot transcended, of course, multiple presidential administrations. It was brought its successful resolution, however, through the vision and strength of exactly one man: President Reagan. Decades of conflict management, in which experienced diplomats and elected officials sought primarily to prevent nuclear war and to contain the Soviet threat had succeeded in preventing nuclear war. And that was an incredible feat, to be sure.
What set Ronald Reagan apart, however, was his vision of a world without the nuclear stand-off that had become an indelible image in the public psyche of virtually the entire world. What set Ronald Reagan apart was his visceral belief that the United States, and the freedom and prosperity it represented, had to, and could, not just contain the threat, but eliminate it without the awful specter of nuclear war coming to fruition.
Derided by his opponents both here and abroad as a dangerous cowboy, President Reagan stood firm in his beliefs and led the country to victory. He believed, correctly, and at variance with the views of many a university professor and politician, that the United States could force the Soviet Union over the cliff on which it rested, buttressed on the backs of the millions it held in its tyrannical grip.
This was a truly great man.
Limited government, lower taxes, and individual responsibility will also be part of President Reagan's legacy. He believed that each American and each community were the best problem-solvers. Rather than making government bigger to address the challenges our country faced, Reagan stood firm in his commitment to the contributions that could be made through personal empowerment and a renewed sense of political and social responsibility.
I was just a second-term congressman when President Reagan came into office. Although a Democrat at the time, I closely identified with his commitment to lower taxes, limited government and to rebuild the military. I shared President Reagan's conservative philosophies, and he helped me, and millions of other Americans, have a restored faith in the purpose of our government.
I also recall a time when President Reagan asked me to breakfast at the White House. I had always been a conservative Democrat, and he had hoped that I would switch parties, as he had done when the Democratic Party ceased to represent the values he held dear. I declined his offer to do so at the time, explaining my strong desire to work to fix the Democratic Party from within. The president knew better, telling me that the party was in the midst of a transformation that would not be reversed any time soon. It took me several years to fully appreciate the president's wisdom. But appreciate it, I did, and I followed his lead in abandoning the party of my youth in deference to another. While I took a little longer to switch than he would have liked, he did provide me with much of the foundation as to why I needed to leave the Democratic Party. I have always appreciated his guidance, humility and humor.
History will treat Ronald Reagan well. He uplifted a frustrated country through his optimism and hope. He changed a troubled world with his devotion to the spread of freedom. Ronald Reagan embodied the American spirit, and our country and the world are forever grateful for his service.
I offer my condolences to Mrs. Reagan and the entire family. They have endured much heartache with his illness, much grief with his passing, and celebrated much joy with his life. My thoughts and prayers are with them in this difficult time.
May God bless Ronald Reagan and his memory. I yield the floor.