Reagan on Rushmore?
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow February 5, 2016
It has been 105 years since Ronald Reagan was born, 36 years since he was elected president, 27 years since he left office and nearly 12 years since he passed away. Yet his political impact is so deep that Republicans still use him as the measuring rod for every person who seeks their party’s nomination—and still wait, in vain, for the next Reagan. His national impact is so lasting that even President Barack Obama concedes, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America.” And his historical impact was—and is—so sweeping that the world’s maps have been redrawn and its history books rewritten because of his policies. Simply put, Reagan is a towering figure worthy of being honored on America’s most famous presidential monument.
To the novice, there appears to be plenty of room for another super-sized visage on Mt. Rushmore. However, National Parks Service officials say the original project exhausted the carve-able rock, and geo-engineers are unsure how new excavations would affect the existing sculpture.
Geology aside, the nature of the monument—four American leaders representing four distinct eras of American history—has always invited discussion about who else belongs on Rushmore. Polls suggest that Americans are open to the idea of adding another face or two, and Americans consistently place Reagan at the top of the list: A 2013 poll revealed that more Americans want Reagan added than any other president.
Regardless of whether it can be done, it’s an interesting thought experiment. If any modern-era president has earned a place on Mt. Rushmore, it is Ronald Wilson Reagan. Just compare his achievements with the other giants immortalized on Rushmore.
The silhouette of Washington, our first warrior-president, reminds us that our liberty and independence come at a price—and that the best way to avoid paying that price in blood is to pay it in preparedness. “There is nothing so likely to produce peace,” Washington counseled, “as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
So revered was Washington that he could have been president for life or some sort of benign military monarch. If anyone was bigger than the republic, it was Washington, the father of our country. But his actions made it clear to his successors that no president is bigger than the republic. He resisted the temptation to amass personal power and bowed to the rule of law—setting crucial precedents on executive power, term limits and civilian control over the military.
Jefferson represents America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which announced to the world that “all men are created equal” and endowed by God with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit happiness. Jefferson’s masterpiece was more than America’s birth certificate, more than an announcement that the New World was ready to govern itself. It was the flame that lit the furnace of what he called “an empire of liberty.”
Just as Washington set lasting precedents in how he left office, Jefferson set lasting precedents in how he entered office. Jefferson’s election marked the nation’s first transfer of power from one party to another. It was a peaceful transfer, but that was anything but inevitable. The election was bitterly fought, the outcome uncertain for weeks. During the long stalemate, there was talk among Jefferson’s opponents of transferring presidential authority to a Senate designee or leaving the office vacant. There were even fears of civil unrest. But Jefferson calmed his supporters and patiently waited for the system to work.
“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said poignantly in his inaugural address, thus laying the foundation for a political system where winners are not coronated like kings and losers are not rounded up like defeated enemies.
More than half-a-century would pass before the promise of Jefferson’s masterpiece was finally fulfilled.
Lincoln initially focused on preserving the Union—as he explained in 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it”—but he ultimately realized that saving the Union required America to extirpate the original sin of slavery.
In abolishing slavery, Lincoln finished what was left undone at the Founding. In laying out his vision for postwar peace, Lincoln reminded us of our responsibilities to those who fight and die for America: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” And in preserving the Union, Lincoln transformed America from a collection of independent states into one nation—the “last, best hope of earth.”
TR embodies America’s entry on the world stage as a force for good. By building the Panama Canal, TR connected East and West. By forging a truly global Navy, he wielded a “big stick” that projected American power and deterred America’s enemies. Indeed, his policies provide a timeless example of how to deter war by being fully prepared to wage it. “We infinitely desire peace,” he declared, echoing Washington. “And the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.”
TR also taught his successors that global leadership demands more than pursuing simple self-interest, that in becoming a great power America should not stop being a good neighbor. Thus, he challenged America to resist “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”
That brings us to Reagan’s résumé.
The economic crisis America faced in the late 1970s and early 1980s—double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates—was compounded by what President Jimmy Carter called an “erosion of our confidence,” a sense that America was in the midst of irreversible decline.
Ever the optimist, Reagan believed that America’s greatest days were yet to come. The key, in Reagan’s view, was reviving America’s economy by cutting nondefense spending, eliminating unnecessary regulation, revamping the tax code and unshackling America’s free-enterprise system. Reagan’s formula worked, as the country enjoyed an unprecedented and unbroken 92-month stretch of economic expansion, an 18-percent increase in disposable income, a halving of unemployment.
With the economy reawakened, Reagan had the resources to outspend, out-build and outmaneuver the Soviet Empire. Like Washington and TR, he ardently believed in peace through strength. “None of the four wars in my lifetime came about because we were too strong,” he observed matter-of-factly. “Our military strength is a prerequisite for peace.”
Reagan challenged Americans to think of the Cold War not as permanent condition to be managed, but as a struggle between freedom and tyranny—a struggle that could be won. “The West will not contain communism,” he said with impatient disdain in 1981. “It will transcend communism…a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Toward that end, he put a halt to the moral relativism and accommodation that had set in after a decade of détente. He rebuilt a demoralized military, armed anti-communist rebels, rolled back Soviet expansionism, challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet state and used rhetoric like a weapon: “Beware the temptation of…blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,” he intoned.
As with Jefferson and Lincoln, human freedom advanced in dramatic and lasting ways under Reagan. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the Cold War had melted away. Nine months later, the Berlin Wall was gone, the Soviet Empire was in full retreat and Eastern Europe was free. And 25 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union was tossed into “the ash heap of history,” just as Reagan had predicted.
This record may explain why congressional leaders introduce bills every now and then to add Reagan’s face to Mt. Rushmore, why there’s a national organization devoted to affixing Reagan’s name to as many buildings and landmarks and highways and airports as possible, why there’s a Mt. Reagan in the making, why “Ronald Reagan’s name is everywhere,” as a recent CNN report concluded.
Of course, Reagan’s monuments cannot be captured in limestone, concrete, steel or bronze. They aren’t frozen in time or place. His monuments are the dismantled walls and discredited doctrines of an evil empire, the winds of freedom he unleashed on nearly every continent and the renewed confidence he injected into a dispirited America.