I was invited to Ronald Reagan's 70th birthday party and didn't even know it until is was over.
There have been a lot of posts celebrating Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, so it's time to tell my political "how it got away story." I may have mentioned this before on this blog, but it's worth telling again.
When I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) back in the early 1980s, I was a conservative newspaper columnist on our college daily (after a brief stint as assistant editorials editor the year before), and was a member of the Students for Reagan. Despite the fact that UCSB was about as left-wing in its campus politics as Berkeley, most students were fairly conservative--as evidenced by the fact that the group was the largest student group on campus.
It was Reagan who inspired me to become a Republican, and he was running for President. I was also a member of the College Republicans, which was sponsored by Brooks Firestone, one of the heirs to the Firestone fortune and a prominent California Republican. He was a frequent visitor to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Inez, which was only about 20 minutes from the UCSB campus.
On one weekend in early February of 1981, I had taken advantage of the proximity of the campus to my home (it was a little less than two hours away) to visit my parents for the weekend. I don't remember what I did that weekend--all I remember is the phone call I got at my Santa Barbara apartment when I got back on Sunday night.
The phone rang and picked it up. "Dude, where were you?" It was the head of the College Republicans.
"What do you mean?"
"Saturday night, man."
"What was going on Saturday night?" I asked.
"We were all invited up to the Reagan Ranch by Brooks Firestone for Ronald Reagan's 70th birthday party! I tried to call your apartment, but I didn't get an answer." I don't think I said anything. "You want to hear about it?"
"No thanks," I said. "I'll call you back later." I hung up the phone. Despondent.
Of course, I've gotten over it. But one thing I haven't gotten over is the high regard for Reagan himself. I usually avoid excessive accolades for politicians. I have been around too many for too many years, and know what most of them are really about. There are certainly exceptions to the rule that very few politicians are true statesmen, but, as a rule, it applies pretty universally.
Reagan was one of the more extraordinary exceptions.
I divide politicians into two groups: Machiavellians and Ciceronians. The Machiavellian politician is exemplified by Bill Clinton. Like Machiavelli himself, these kind of politicians are amoral in their politics. Their chief concern is the acquisition and maintenance of power, and the political positions they take are subordinate to that purpose. Pollsters and focus groups characterize the Machiavellian.
The second kind of politician, the Ciceronian, is exemplified by Reagan. Like Cicero, politics serves these kind of politicians as a mere means to a more substantive end. Unlike the Machiavellian, policy objectives are not means to the end of power; rather, power is the means to the ends of the policy objectives. Principles and substantive policy prescriptions characterize the Ciceronian.
Now there are a couple of things to not about this division. First, like all divisions of human beings, no one fits exclusively into one category. There seems to be a spectrum such that no particular politician will be exclusively one or the other.
Secondly, notice that there is nothing in this division (other than the particular politicians I have chosen as examples) that would allow anyone to identify either one of the types of politicians with any particular party. If you are a Republican, you will probably think that your party is more Ciceronian than the Democrats, and vice-versa. However, you can easily see that this division crosses party lines. Ralph Nader, for example, a Democrat, obviously does not belong among the Machiavellians, while Charlie Crist, who I believe is still a registered Republican, does.
Reagan, as I have said, was clearly a Ciceronian.
I grew up in California, and I not only remember his two terms as governor, but his daily radio addresses on a prominent Los Angeles radio station. From the very beginning, he knew what he was and what he believed in, and he articulated it at every opportunity.
Today's national Republican politicians commonly pay obesience to Reagan, but I sometimes wonder if many of them admire him only for his political success. What sets off many modern Republicans from the Republicans who made the party successful in the 1980s is the willingness to admire and emulate Republicans were were not successful.
The Republican Party owes its own successes over the last 50 years to a small cadre of late 20th century Republicans (Reagan among them) who admired a man who was a political failure: Barry Goldwater. They admired him because he put principle above politics. He said was he thought and let the chips fall where they may.
What separates the conservative men from the Republican boys is whether they would have admired Reagan if he would not have won two national elections.