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The Great Lady and the Gipper’s 100th Birthday

In his farewell address in January 1989, Reagan noted that “we set out to change a nation, and we changed the world.” And unsurprisingly he again referred to the famous image of the “shining city on a hill” from the 17th century sermon of John Winthrop (though Winthrop didn’t use “shining” to describe the city–that was a Reagan embellishment).
The “City on the Hill” image, however, was chiefly meant to apply to America. In contemplating the whole of Reagan’s achievement, a different image or icon comes to mind as being more significant in several ways–the Statue of Liberty.
Reagan formally launched his 1980 campaign on Labor Day across from the Statue of Liberty, and his entire speech made reference to the “Great Lady” in the background. Reagan’s upraised arm looks almost like a mimic of the Statue’s countenance, and perhaps this was not a coincidence.
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In that speech Reagan referred to “the torch that many times before in our nation’s history has cast a golden light in times of gloom.” He closed out the speech with the phrase, “Let us pledge to each other, with this Great Lady looking on, that we can, and so help us God, we will, make America great again.”
It is important to note, though, that in 1980 the Statue of Liberty, like the nation, was in serious disrepair. It was corroded and rusting; there were rust holes all the way through in places. The paint was peeling. Structural engineers warned that the arm bearing the torch was in danger of falling off. It was swaying dangerously in the strong winds that blew off the ocean.
In other words, the condition of the statue was a perfect metaphor for Jimmy Carter’s America.
During Reagan’s first term, the statue underwent a complete renovation. It cost $350 million–every penny privately raised. Who says only the government can do large things? The great Lady of Liberty didn’t need a “stimulus” bill to get fixed up.
Reagan presided over the unveiling of the refurbished statue in 1986, a bit past the halfway point in his presidency. His approval ratings were at an all time high, as the economy was booming. In his remarks before throwing the switch to turn on the nighttime spotlights, Reagan said: “We are the keepers of the flame of liberty. We hold it high tonight for the world to see, a beacon of hope, a light unto the nations.”
Now fast forward two and a half years to one of Reagan’s last great acts before leaving the White House–his fifth and final meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, in New York, following Gorbachev’s speech at the United Nations where Gorbachev announced deep unilateral cuts in the Soviet military forces, the beginning of the withdrawal of his occupying forces in eastern Europe, and the implicit repudiation of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Reagan had got advance word about this speech, which, significantly, Gorbachev did not share with the Politburo before hand. Well and truly the Cold War was ending.
Reagan hosted Gorbachev for lunch at Governor’s Island, after which they, along with President-elect George H.W. Bush, walked outside and were photographed across from . . . the Statue of Liberty.
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Usually I resist appealing to Hollywood analogies about Reagan (even though he often did so), because they are overdone and used frequently to denigrate him. But it is impossible not to see the “story arc” here, as they say in the movie trade. The course of the statue, and Reagan’s juxtaposition with it, in the course of his presidency, is a perfect metaphor for the course of the 1980s. The refurbishment of the statue tracks, almost in real time, the refurbishment of the nation’s economy and spirit in the first half of the 1980s. Then, Reagan exits the stage almost literally in the lengthening afternoon shadow of the statue on the cusp of the arrival of liberty over the next few years in the captive nations east of the Berlin Wall. Has there ever been a greater ending?
Happy birthday, Mr. President, from the whole world.

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