Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks Of Sen. Alexander - President Ronald Reagan Tribute

Posted on June 7, 2004

Mr. President, a few years ago when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, he attended one of the many press dinners which are held. I think it was the Gridiron Dinner. I think it is well known that maybe 90 percent of the press corps in Washington had a different point of view on issues than Pres. Reagan did, but they liked him anyway, and they respected him and he had fun with them, just as they did with him. I remember on that evening he strode into the Gridiron Dinner looking like a million dollars, smiling big. The press rose, smiling back, applauding. Pres. Reagan stood in front of them until it subsided, and then he said to his adversaries in the media, "Thank you very much - I know how hard it is to clap with your fingers crossed." And they laughed, and they had a wonderful time with Pres. Reagan. The first thing we think about, those of us who had any opportunity to get to know him — a great many of us — was that Ronald Reagan was a very friendly man. He was a congenial person, an easy person to know, the kind of person you want to spend a lot of time with, if you had the opportunity, and that what you saw in private was what everyone else saw in public. Howard Baker, the former majority leader of the Senate when Ronald Reagan was president, got to know him especially well. And then in 1987, Pres. Reagan invited former Sen. Baker to come to be his chief of staff, which he was for nearly two years. I remember Sen. Baker telling me that, to his surprise, when his 9 a.m. meetings came every morning with Pres. Reagan, he discovered that Mr. Reagan had a funny little story to tell to Sen. Baker, his chief of staff. What surprised Sen. Baker even more was Pres. Reagan expected Sen. Baker to have a funny little story to tell back. So for that two years, virtually every morning at 9 a.m., when the president of the United States and the chief of staff of the White House met, they swapped funny little stories. It is very reassuring to me that two men who have maybe the two biggest jobs in the world were comfortable enough with themselves, each other, and their responsibilities to begin the day in that sort of easy way. That is the part of Ronald Reagan we think more about. Another part of Ronald Reagan which I think is often overlooked is that he was a man of big ideas. I would say intellectual, although I guess there is a little difference between being devoted to ideals and being intellectual but not much difference. Unlike most people who are candidates for president of the United States, Ronald Reagan wrote many of his own speeches. When he had a few minutes, he would sit in the back of a campaign airplane and make notes on cards in the shorthand that he had. His former aide, Marty Anderson, has written a book about that and told that, to a great extent, Ronald Reagan's words were his own words, ideas he expressed or ideas he gathered himself and ideas he had thought through and wanted to promulgate. Maybe that is partly why he seemed so comfortable with himself when he finally entered public life. He came to it late in life. He was age 55 when he became governor of California, so by then he knew what he thought, and he had a sense of purpose, and he knew what he wanted to do. I got an idea of that kind of big thinking when I went to see Pres. Reagan in my third year as governor, his first year as president in 1981. I talked to him about a big swap which I thought would help our country. I suggested, the federal government take over all of Medicaid and let the state and local governments take over all responsibility for kindergarten through 12th grade. That would make it clear, I said, where the responsibility lies. You cannot fix schools from Washington, and it would make more efficient our health care system if we did things that way. He liked the idea. It fit his unconventional brand of thinking. He advocated it. It was a little too revolutionary for most people in Washington in the early 1980s. He had the same sort of unconventional attitude toward national defense policy. Many people overlooked the fact that Ronald Reagan did not just want us to have as many nuclear weapons as the Soviet empire did; he wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons. He saw them as wrong, as bad, and he wanted a world without nuclear weapons. Instead of mutual assured destruction, which was the doctrine at the time, he built up our strength so we could begin to reduce nuclear weapons and then unilaterally begin to do it before the Soviets did, hoping they would then follow. We can see the results. At the time, some people said Ronald Reagan was naive to think we could transfer power from Washington, from an arrogant empire at home or naive to think we could face down an evil empire abroad. And especially naive to think our policy should be based upon getting rid of nuclear weapons. It turned out Ronald Reagan saw further than most of those critics did. Perhaps his most famous speech, not my favorite speech — my favorite speech is the one we heard a lot about this weekend, 20 years ago at Normandy, which moved the whole world to tears and reminded Americans why we are Americans and what we fought for — but his most famous speech may be the one in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Earlier this year, I visited Berlin with John Kornblum who at the time was U.S. minister and deputy commandant in the American sector of West Berlin where tanks challenged tanks and white crosses marked grave sites of those who were killed trying to escape over the wall from East Berlin. Mr. Kornblum talked about the development of that speech that Ronald Reagan gave that day. Those words, or the thought, "tear down this wall," went into the speech at an early stage. Some fought to keep it in. Many fought to take it out. Those who had thought Ronald Reagan was wrong to say the Soviet Union was an evil empire were not anxious for him to say, "tear down this wall." Some suggested that Pres. Reagan try his hand at German as Pres. Kennedy had in a memorable speech at the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s. Some suggested that the speech should not be made at the Brandenburg Gate. That was too provocative, Mr. Kornblum remembers. But the speech was made at the Brandenburg Gate, and Mr. Reagan did keep his words in that speech. He did make his point, and his point was clear, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." For those of us who had a chance to see the new countries of Eastern Europe and their enthusiasm for freedom and for a free market system, we can see the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his unconventional thinking. I think it is important for us to remember that this genial president was a man of ideas, of all the presidents I have worked with, as much a man of ideas as any one of those presidents. Ronald Reagan also taught us something about leadership. I recall in 1980 when he and Mrs. Reagan visited the Tennessee governor's mansion during the presidential campaign. I had not known him very well. He had served as governor. He was several years older. He was from the west. It was really my first chance to meet him. After one hour or an hour-and-a-half of breakfast with him the next morning, I remember going away thinking this man has a better concept of the presidency than anyone I have ever been privileged to meet. Ronald Reagan understood what George Reedy said in his book, "The Twilight of the Presidency," is the definition of presidential leadership: First, see an urgent need; second, develop a strategy to meet the need; and, third, persuade at least half the people that you are right. Ronald Reagan was as good as anyone at persuading at least half the people that he was right. He taught that and he also taught us the importance of proceeding from principles. Sometimes we are described in Washington these days as being too ideological, too uncompromising, too partisan. Pres. Reagan was a principled man. He operated from principles in all of his decisions, insofar as I knew. He advocated his principles as far as he could take them, but he recognized that the great decisions that we make here are often conflicts between principles on which all of us agree. It might be equal opportunity versus the rule of law. And once we have argued our principle and the solution, and strategy has been taken as far as it could go, if we get, as he said 75, 80, or 85 percent of what we advocated, well, then that is a pretty good job. So, he was very successful because he argued from principles. He argued strenuously. He was good at persuading at least half the people he was right. Then he was willing to accept a conclusion because most of our politics is about the conflict of principles. There is another lesson that he taught us, and that was to respect the military. Now, that seems unnecessary to say in the year 2004 where we have a volunteer military that is better than any military we have ever had in our history; when we have witnessed the thousands of acts of courage, charity, kindness, and ingenuity in Iraq and Afghanistan recently; when the men and women of our National Guard and reserves are also being called up. We have a lot of respect for our military. In 1980, we were showing a lot less respect for the men and women of our military. I remember riding with Pres. Reagan in a car in Knoxville during the 1980 campaign. As we pulled out of the airport by the National Guard unit, there were a number of the soldiers waving at him, understanding and sensing that he respected them. He turned to me and said something like this: I wish we could think of some way to honor these men and women more. He said we used to do that in the movies in the 1930s and 1940s. We would make movies honoring men and women in the military and that is how we showed our respect for them. Well, he did find a way to honor them during his presidency in the 1980s, and by the time he left at the end of that decade, there was no question that the American people remembered to honor the men and women in the military. There is one other aspect of Pres. Reagan's leadership that I would like to mention, which is probably the most important aspect of the American character, and that is the belief that anything is possible. The idea that we uniquely believe in this country, and people all around the world think we are a little odd for believing it, is that no matter where you come from, no matter what race you are, no matter what color your skin, if you come here and work hard, anything is possible. That is why we subscribe to ideals such as all men are created equal, even though we know achieving that goal will always be a work in progress, and we may never reach it. That is why we say we will "pay any price, bear any burden," as Pres. Kennedy said, to defend peace, even though we know that is a work in progress, and we may never reach it. That is why we say more recently we want to leave no child behind when it comes to learning to read. We know that is a work in progress, and we may not reach it, but that is our goal. We Americans say that anything is possible, and nothing symbolizes that more than the American presidency. And no president has symbolized that more in the last century than Ronald Reagan. He has reminded us of what it means to be an American. He lifted our spirits, he made us proud, he strengthened our character, and he taught us a great many lessons.