Monday, January 17th | 16 Shevat 5782

April 3, 2011 8:40 pm

Reagan’s Real Legacy

avatar by Jason Reese


Ronald Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987.

As Prepared for Delivery to the Leadership Program of the Rockies—March 11, 2011—Aurora, Colorado

I want to talk about how we use our conservative principles; what we do with this quiver full of arrows in the ongoing battle between freedom and dependency.

But to do this, you’ll have to travel back with me to September 13, 1993.  Specifically, to a high school classroom in the middle of social studies class.

I remember being wide-eyed with excitement that day when they rolled in one of those gigantic old widescreen TVs.  Miracle of miracles, we were going to watch television in class!  And while my burgeoning dreams of ‘The Price Is Right’ weren’t quite realized, the image of what we did watch that day has stuck with me a whole lot longer.  It was the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accords.

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Now I don’t know how much you remember about this event.  It took place on the South Lawn of the White House on a picturesque September day.  Yasser Arafat was there for the Palestinians, bounding around with a Cheshire cat grin on his face.  Yitzhak Rabin, on behalf of the Israelis, looked much less excited to be there.  And when it finally came time to sign the agreement, there was Bill Clinton, arms outstretched, trying to broker an awkward handshake.

As I watched from my seat in that classroom, that handshake fascinated me.  On such a momentous and historic day, war-weary Prime Minister Rabin looked like he had just swallowed his shoe.  I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind as he looked down at Yasser Arafat’s outstretched arm and reluctantly agreed to shake.

Well, being young and naïve in the ways of the world, I figured I should ask.  I went home that night and penned a letter to Prime Minister Rabin and sent it off with the confidence that only a fifteen year old could have that it would receive a response.  Miraculously, five months later, that confidence was rewarded with a letter directly from the Prime Minister.  It said, in part:

“I knew that the hand outstretched to me from the far side of the podium was the same hand that held the knife, that held the gun, the hand that gave the order to shoot, to kill innocent civilians.  Of all the hands in the world, it was not the hand that I wanted to or dreamed of touching.  But, it was not Yitzhak Rabin, the private citizen, on that podium.

I would have liked to sign a peace agreement with Holland, or Luxembourg, or New  Zealand.  But there was no need to.  That is why, on that podium, on that world stage, I stood as the representative of a nation, as the emissary of a state that is willing to give   peace a chance.  One does not make peace with one’s friends.  One makes peace with one’s enemies.”

That last, powerful line—’one does not make peace with one’s friends, one makes peace with one’s enemies’—has been on my heart a lot lately when it comes to our country.

Prime Minister Rabin got at the heart of one of our most natural tendencies.  We’re all human animals.  We congregate with those like us.  We’re drawn to those who share our background or interests.  We tend to talk mostly to those who agree with us.

In the perpetual tug-of-war that is politics, we gather our allies, pick up the rope and start pulling—never bothering to look beyond our tribe.  And while this tendency may generate some temporary wins, and will certainly expend a lot of energy in the process, heaven help us if we ever put that rope down for even a second!

We make peace with our friends.

This is a great model for a sore back, for instability, for disaffection with government, for the sort of red/blue divide which gets so much play in the press.  But it’s hardly a good model for achieving enduring change.

To create real change, to be transformative leaders, we need to engage our skeptics.  We need to embrace those unlike us.  To meet people where they are and help them to navigate the path to where they need to be.

You see, there’s a reason that America continues to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today, instead of Malcolm X or Jesse Jackson.  And, surprisingly enough, it’s the same reason that Ronald Reagan’s legacy will endure far beyond those of Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon: they changed the game.  They engaged their skeptics.  They went to those on the other side of that rope and not only convinced them to lay down their arms, but at the same time persuaded them to change sides and start pulling in the opposite direction.

They made peace with their enemies.  And that’s a lesson we could all take to heart these days.

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