My first impressions of Ronald Reagan were formed from a long distance. In England in the 1970s, he was regarded as something not too far away from Dr. Strangelove impersonated by a chimp. It's hard to recall now but when he was elected in 1980, many Europeans were genuinely frightened by Reagan. They believed that a nuclear war was imminent, and that this stupid cowboy would blow everything up. Wearing a "Reagan '80" button in my high school was therefore a form of punk revolt against the social-democratic pieties of my teachers. Johnny Rotten couldn't have shocked quite so effectively. Backing Thatcher was bad enough. But supporting Reagan was simply unforgivable, a sign of impending lunacy. One teacher gently took me aside and asked me whether I was experiencing trouble at home. What else could explain a 17-year-old's fixation on tax cuts and missiles?
For me, the equation was a simple one. I'd read my Solzhenitsyn and Orwell. I needed no instruction on the evil of the evil empire. I'd also kept my eyes open in the 1970s -- an era of such squalid materialism and soul-crushing mediocrity in my native country that a revolution of some sort seemed the only credible response. Unions controlled the economy; appeasers ran foreign policy; inflation was soaring; Britain was slipping inexorably down every international league table. And when you looked toward Jimmy Carter's America, you saw a president apologizing for his own country, unable to do anything bold or imaginative abroad or at home, blind to the expansionism of the Soviets, and in television image after television image, giving an impression of gray, impotent complexity. Both Britain and America had become ungovernable. Or so it seemed.
Thatcher and Reagan changed all that. They made governance imaginable again. They did things: firing the PATCO employees, destroying the coal miners' union, slashing tax rates, ratcheting up defense spending. To British neoliberals (we were never really Tories), Reagan's huge deficits remained a worry. But they were also a source of some envy. Thatcher could never have run up such debt without the IMF knocking on the door, and so we endured pillorying from those who felt the brunt of spending cuts. Reagan, in charge of the global currency and the U.S. economy, could, in contrast, get away with fiscal murder, while barely injuring anyone. But we reassured ourselves with the thought that most of the spending was on the military, and if it forced the Soviets to their knees, it would pay dividends eventually. And so it did in the 1990s -- when Clinton and Gingrich basked in the peace dividend Reagan had engineered a decade earlier.
And then, in 1984, I witnessed Reagan from within America. I arrived in the summer of that year, just after the Los Angeles Olympics, themselves an emblem of a country almost giddily in the midst of rebirth and renewal. I rediscovered the thrill of the forbidden when I showed up in Harvard's Government Department as a European who loved Reagan. Again, they wondered whether I was kidding. I seemed relatively intelligent, after all. I remember a crisp sunny day in Cambridge after the bombing of Libya in retaliation for terrorism. I was exultant. Others were outraged. I learned then that parts of the American left would rather leave tyrants and terrorists in place than exercise American power -- and that those parts had come to control the American establishment. They were crippled by a self-doubt that many in my generation never felt. If anything, our self-doubt came from the patent abdication by our parents of any responsibility for arresting Western decline and decay. Thatcher and Reagan -- on their own -- ended that abdication. We had parents after all.
And for some reason, Reagan never grated on me, as he did on so many non-Americans. I found his rhetoric moving, powerful, throat-catchingly effective. Maybe it was because I really believed that Soviet communism was evil -- in a cosmic sense. Maybe it was because I believed its milder variant -- Euro-style socialism -- was another form of slow death for the human spirit. Or maybe it was because he was so effortlessly good at speaking. He spoke as an equal, as a truly democratic spirit, his occasional fumbling and goofiness reassuring the listener that he was not lording over you, but lifting you up to see things you couldn't see before. There was a reason that the "Morning in America" slogan was so effective in 1984 -- because that was how it felt. I remember seeing a cover-story in The New York Times at the time by Johnny Apple: "WHY IS THIS MAN SO POPULAR?" I remember laughing out loud at it in a sandwich shop in Georgetown, and thinking, not for the last time, "How Can Some Liberals Be So Dumb?"
Yes, there were failures: the deficit (although compared to George W. Bush, Reagan was a tightwad on domestic spending and raised taxes continually after his initial cut); there was the near-death experience at Reykjavik; there was Bitburg; there was Ed Meese and Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer. But as a performance in general, Reagan's was an exemplum of style and class, after a decade of tackiness and grime. And as a legacy, the winning of the cold war and the revival of the American economy eclipsed all the setbacks. Reagan made politics a realm where conviction mattered again, where courage counted, where faith overcame skepticism. There was something deeply American about that, I came to understand. Even Thatcher's more dour and realist conservatism drew strength from that irrepressibly American conviction that things can be done, problems fixed, crises solved. And as I basked in the Gipper's warmth, I found myself becoming an American myself -- an American of Reagan's vintage, where freedom need not be apologized for nor faith in God or the future reviled. It was, for many of us isolated conservatives in the 1970s, a coming-in from the cold. And we will never forget that first blast of warmth -- before all the qualifications crept in.
Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at TNR.
By Andrew Sullivan