In January I was invited to address the City Tavern Club on the occasion of the club’s annual Reagan Dinner. This year it was a particular honor because it was the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s last full year in office. We remember Reagan as an inspirational, optimistic figure who oversaw great changes in attitude among Americans and between America and the rest of the world. But that view of Reagan today is not what we might have had back in 1988.
In late January of 1988, the Superbowl Champion Washington Redskins were honored in at a White House ceremony. Some may recall that President Reagan, in honoring them, was also able to hit the Redskins wide receiver, Ricky Sanders with a perfect pass (view at 10:30). We have yet to see President Trump hitting Press Secretary Sarah Sanders with a golf ball.
Politically, however, January 1988 appeared to mark the beginning of a lame-duck year, with Democratic majorities in Congress. The Iran-Contra investigation (the second attempt to assassinate him) and the defeat of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court showed the decline of his once-feared powers. A brutal, unhinged thrashing by Senator Ted Kennedy and the general Reagan Administration haplessness had magnified Bork’s own fumbles.
A year later, in January of 1989, the President assessed his eight years of achievements. His Farewell Address first recalled the wild accusations of his critics when he ran for president: that his “views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would … bring about economic collapse…. The fact is, what they called ‘radical’ was really ‘right.’ What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.’”
The “Reagan Revolution” was “more like the great rediscovery … of our values and our common sense.” In that rediscovering, America “changed the world.”
In the spirit of both Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Perpetuation Address, Reagan voiced the need for an “informed patriotism” to accompany “the resurgence of national pride that [he] called the new patriotism … grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”
Reagan emphasized, “Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age [today over 65] grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” One could learn patriotism from family, neighbors, veterans, or even school. “And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.”
With this let us recall the television shows we saw back in the late 1980s: LA Law, Dallas. Miami Vice. Hill Street Blues’ , “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” We see Reagan’s point even more today.
“But now, he lamented, “we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed.… Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.” “Reinstitutionalized?” Reagan’s maladroit word choice, so atypical of him, highlights the daunting difficulty of this project.
But harsh criticism of Reagan’s (or any other President’s) inability to “reinstitutionalize” the American spirit or, for that matter, find a better word to describe the project overlooks a contemporaneous and amazing book that shook the intellectual world: Allan D. Bloom’s 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom, a University of Chicago political theorist highly distinguished for his scholarship on ancient and modern political philosophy and on Shakespeare, inspired a generation of brilliant students, who became leading scholars, teachers, and government officials. Might Bloom’s denunciation of the soft nihilism of contemporary intellectual life answer Reagan’s challenge of creating a “new” and “informed patriotism?”
As it turns out, no.
Bloom trenchantly exposed the insipid character of the contemporary university, wrapped up as it was (and still is) in German philosophy: “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates, and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier….” Juxtaposing John Locke and Woody Allen, Bloom asserted the insight of Rousseau over both. Even when combined with democracy, capitalism with all its benefits is not enough. To paraphrase the title of the French edition of the book (L’âme désarmée), the human soul has unfulfilled longings. Bloom showed how the serious study of great literature and philosophy might address these age-old elements of the human soul. That is where what he calls “authentic liberation” can be found.
If “reinstitutionalize” is an awkward construction of what America needed to restore herself, Bloom’s prescription offers temptations but is wanting.
And this is where a political critique of Bloom’s view is called for. Harry V. Jaffa, a co-author with Bloom of Shakespeare’s Politics and a formidable political philosopher points out that “Bloom cannot form or accept an opinion about the United States that has not come to him from a European source.” In contrast to Bloom’s world formed by books, Jaffa presents “The American book of books, … the story of America itself, as the story of the secular redemption of mankind.”
Thus, to seriously address Bloom (and Reagan’s) concern, “The solution is not accomplished without books but it is more than books and ideas. It is about strength of soul that brings purpose and will.” For Jaffa, the story of America is one that centers on the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. And those are accessible to all who are open to them, from the common citizen to the scholar, not just those who studied the political philosophy that informed their assertion.
Needless to say, one cannot settle such issues in a brief essay, but the consequences are not merely literary. Having been unjustly rejected for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork wrote books attacking American legal and political culture. In his second book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), Bork speculates that the Declaration of Independence is the fountainhead of contemporary nihilism, with its talk of equality, rights, and the pursuit of happiness.
Thus, among other astounding speculations, he proposes that “the street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.” Bork would draw a straight line from the anti-tyrannical Lockean elements of the Declaration (“the pursuit of happiness”) to contemporary moral nihilism. He cannot see the decisive distinction between Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, on the one hand, and the street thug and his academic apologists, on the other. We can see from our brief reflections here that Bork came to this astounding conclusion because he was blinded by Bloom and his students to have this low view of America.
The man alleged by his opponents to be a dunce, Ronald Reagan, saw political and moral education more clearly than most of the intellectuals of his day, even the conservative ones: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’” Consider the penetrating insight in that about the human condition—learned through observation of lived experience, perhaps even through watching and performing in films, not through dogged study of philosophical treatises.
Or might we turn for lessons to the author of another best-selling book of 1987, written by no intellectual but instead by a man of action. A shrewd and intellectual observer at the time wrote that its author “believes that excess can be a virtue, [he] is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary.” This observer is none other than George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
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