By Roger Franklin
It was Christmas six years ago when Ronald Reagan, who died on Saturday at the age of 93, became an unexpected addition to our family, thanks to my son, who was then 11. As every parent knows, kids that age can have strange ideas about what the well-equipped adult really needs, so when Squirt handed me a little box with a mysterious present clunking heavily inside, I expected a clock or cast-iron sock rack or some such equally useless thing. What emerged instead was a small bust of the 40th President of the U.S., whose forever-frozen smile gazed up from the wreckage of ribbon and gift wrap with more than a dash of mockery.
A statue of Reagan! A joke, right? His mother must have put the boy up to it. But no, she was just as genuinely bemused. What could he have been thinking to mark Christmas with this grinning, empty-headed lump, seven inches of cast-bronze conservative kitsch?
NO TREE HUGGER.
Now, Reagan and I went back quite a ways, that much was true, and Squirt had heard his name many times. It was Reagan who first drew me to the States, when he was running against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the Australian paper I worked for at the time wanted news stories and features on the conventions and political carnivals of an American election year. They were duly sent back to Sydney, none very flattering.
That Reagan was a twit went without saying, but I said it anyway, and with some vitriol. For example, there was the moron's blunder at the Detroit convention, where he said trees were worse polluters than cars. What a dolt not to know the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. How stupid would Americans be to elect him? But of course they did, and for the next eight years, most of what I wrote, including a whole book on corruption and fraud in the Reagan-era Pentagon, chronicled how the sunny fool in the White House was getting it all wrong.
Nuclear missiles in Europe, that warmonger! Homeless armies on the streets -- didn't he care? And what about this racist imperialism he was unleashing on Central America? Charismatic Sandinistas savaged by Gringo spooks and mercenaries. El Salvador a killing field. Little Grenada ground under a cowboy heel.
And Star Wars -- how sad was that? It couldn't work, it wouldn't work, and yet Reagan was determined to build the bloody thing. The only unknown, or so it seemed, was whether the U.S. would go broke before mushroom clouds replaced cities with pools of black glass, which is what Reagan and his nuke-slinging buddies evidently wanted.
So why had my son bought me this bust? His explanation surprised me, and the gist of it went like this: "Gee, I thought you liked him. You like everything he did."
Turns out, the kid was smarter than his old man, and he really had been paying attention when I'd answered those questions about why Russia wasn't the Soviet Union anymore, and what about this vanished Berlin Wall that they were talking about on TV? My son must have been listening, too, when his American mother reminisced about how, when she was his age, her family stocked the basement with tinned goods and a chamber pot to see them through the storm of nuclear fallout.
Those threats were gone because the Soviet Union was gone -- and it was Ronald Reagan who made it so. My son will never have to master the duck-and-cover, and for that his mother and I are grateful.
Who can doubt that it was Reagan's final push that toppled the Soviet Union onto history's scrapheap? He might not have known clean air from car exhaust, but he knew evil when he saw it -- and that was what he called it: The Evil Empire. Yes, all the Noam Chomsky quoters scoffed at the First Simpleton's ignorance of the need for nuance, but the Soviet system was evil. By Roger Franklin
TAKEN BY SURPRISE.
It robbed its people of their right to be heard and to object -- and it would still be doing so today if Reagan had not underlined for Gorbachev what the Soviet leader already knew: That in the face of implacable resolve, resistance was futile. Whatever resources the Soviets put into the arms race, the U.S. was going to match, and then some.
It was a contest the commissars couldn't win, nor even contemplate prolonging. So faced with a rumored simpleton's resolve, the Soviets closed up shop, and for the Evil Empire's hundreds of millions of former subjects, democracy arrived. Simple as Reagan, simple as that. Armageddon's clock retreated several minutes from thermonuclear midnight, and every backward click was the Gipper's doing.
And Squirt probably was thinking also of a family vacation we had taken in Grenada. Bored with the beach and curious to learn how the war there had unfolded, I hired a cab driver to tour the tiny island's battle sites and taken my son along for the ride. The driver had shown us where the Cuban engineers held out, where the bleached carcass of a shot-to-pieces Soviet transport plane still sat by a tropical clearing, the beach where SEALS slipped ashore.
A glorious victory of America arms? No, in military terms, a pathetic joke, and I had written with no small joy for foreign audiences about the invasion's snafus and murderous incompetence, and of the red faces it prompted at the Pentagon. Marine choppers mistook the lunatic asylum for military headquarters and repeatedly rocketed the howling unfortunates. What should have been a couple of hours of easy work for the U.S. turned into days of chaos, collateral damage, and friendly-fire casualties.
"So you must really dislike the Yanks," I said to the cabbie.
The look he shot me said that I was mad.
"Please, don't call it an invasion," he began. "It was a rescue mission. Mr. Reagan saved us." For the rest of the tour, he recounted horror stories of life and death under the Marxist academics and petty thugs whose best efforts had produced a bloody coup. He told of terror and mutilations, the rule of the machete, hunger, shots and screams, neighbors disappearing in the night.
Every other Grenadan echoed the same thoughts. "Ronald Reagan," said a service manager at our hotel, "bless him for a saint." Even the tourist-trap touts at the waterfront had only good words to say. "Reagan, bless the man," was the common refrain. Somewhere on Grenada there may have been someone on Grenada who didn't like Reagan, but I couldn't find him.
So now, years later, I've dragged out the little bronze Gipper, and he's sitting here beside the keyboard, that optimistic smile as big as ever. He might not have been a genius, and he wasn't without his faults -- the Iran-Contra debacle tells you that. But an inability to know right from wrong, good from evil? Well, that wasn't one of the Reagan's faults. Simple as he was painted by those who speak of hegemons and post-colonial oppression, he knew enough to understand that evil has to be opposed because to accommodate it contaminates all who try.
In his innocence, my son was right. I did like Ronald Reagan, even if I didn't know it at the time. So here's a toast to a simple man who had the wit to ignore his betters and leave the world, all things considered, a finer, safer place than he found it.
Franklin, a native of Australia, is Small Business editor at BusinessWeek Online