One cliche about Ronald Reagan that I didn’t hear too much this week is the one that held he didn’t know many things but knew, and fought for, a few very important ones. In this respect, Reagan was said to differ from Jimmy Carter, a highly intelligent man who knew the details about plenty of things but struggled with first principles.
This variation of Isiah Berlin’s “fox and hedgehog” theme was actually my view of Reagan while he was president. It enabled me to reconcile what I thought I knew (Reagan was not very smart) with what I was learning (Reagan was producing a successful presidency, the first in a generation). And, indeed, it is a more plausible and honest assessment than the favorite liberal explanation for Reagan’s success — that it was down to good communication skills and some luck. Yet, today my formerly held view seems misguided for three reasons. First, it confuses focusing on a few big things with knowing only those things. Second, it overlooks the fact that, by knowing a few important things, one can know the many less important things that follow from them. Third, it misses entirely Reagan the visionary.
To illustrate the second point, consider this piece by Mark Steyn arguing that Reagan knew (or would have known) why the EU won’t work. One of the biggest things Reagan knew is that “we are a nation that has a government – not the other way around.” But the EU is precisely a government in search of a nation. As Steyn puts it, “The European Constitution attempts to supplant genuine national identities with an ersatz bureaucratic identity – a government identity, from which a new national identity will follow. For Ronald Reagan, America was the ‘shining city on a hill’. For M Giscard and his fellow founding fathers, the European Union is affordable housing on an environmentally protected hill. I can’t see it working myself.”
To illustrate the third point, Reagan the visionary, I turn to another Steyn column in which he asks:
“What is an ‘intelligent’ person? As defined by the media, it seems to mean someone who takes the media seriously. Someone wonkish on the nuts and bolts of particular topics of interest to media types, and able to sit around yakking about them till 3 in the morning. Ronald Reagan had a much rarer intelligence — a strategic intelligence. In 1977, he told Richard Allen, ‘My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.’
“The arrogance of every age is the assumption of permanence. It’s unusual to find a leader who thinks beyond that: ‘smart’ in media politics means someone who can recite by heart every sub-clause of his plan on prescription-drug re-importation from Canada, not someone who looks a decade or two down the road and figures out the lie of the land. I want a leader who’s giving some thought to big questions like, say, the increasing Islamification of Europe, and I don’t care if he’s from Eureka College or dropped out of Dixon High.”
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