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Memories of the Reagan White House

Nancy Reagan’s passing takes me back in memory to some visits with the president and his wife in the White House in the early 80s. The reader will indulge the personal nature of my account; my only aim is to recall this moment when the West was galvanized by a doctrine the Europeans call neo-liberalism, of which Ronald Reagan was the standard-bearer. To gain access to the President, it was first necessary to convince Nancy that I was not one of those French intellectuals, generally socialist, who came to try to ensnare her husband. She was a woman of contrasts: as delicate as fine porcelain, with big inquisitive eyes and an iron will. I obtained her consent by showing my admiration for the white rhododendrons of her private garden: A Frenchman who knew his plants could not be too bad.

Nancy Reagan never discussed politics before a third person; the only serious subject she took up was her fight against drugs. She spoke with an emotion that covered some painful family secret. Ronald Reagan, whom I asked about the war on drugs, supported his wife’s campaign with more devotion than conviction. He was impressed by the argument of the economist Milton Friedman and of his own Secretary of State, George Shultz, who believed that the legalization of all drugs would be the least bad solution to the overdose epidemic. I took Ronald Reagan to be what the Americans call an “anarcho-capitalist,” that is, one who believed that it is best to let the market solve economic and social problems, to let the individual choose his life and his morals, and to keep the state to a minimum. A believer in freedom in all cases, Reagan was also favorable to migration, which he thought benefitted both immigrants and the host country. The left at that time attributed this position to the President’s closeness to California business interests who sought cheap manual labor. I took his position on open borders to be instead a matter of principle, shared by all free-market thinkers. What a contrast with the Republican candidates of 2016, who appeal to Reagan while promising to expel the twelve million illegal immigrants who now work in the United States! But Reagan was also an astute politician who knew how to accommodate reality and to negotiate with his enemies.

In Europe he was taken for an idiot, probably because he understood every complex situation in terms of a few elementary principles: capitalism works, socialism does not; when the State gets mixed up in things that are not its business it does harm; the USSR is an Empire of Evil and will disappear. Moreover, Reagan laid out his thought with the help of anecdotes, something the American public loved but that left Europeans perplexed.

What struck me during my conversations with the Reagans was the authenticity of their convictions. Ronald Reagan had become a free-market advocate long before his election, through his experience as Governor of California and by his assiduous reading of the columns that Milton Friedman published in Business Week.  Friedman had a gift for adapting every week the ideas of authors such as Frederic Bastiat or Jean-Baptiste Say (Friedman considered Say and Bastiat to be the early nineteenth century French founders of free-market thinking) for a wide readership who would never read their books or those of any other theorists; these ideas were to become the principles of Reaganism. Similarly, in his intransigence towards the USSR, Reagan had been inspired by the Star Wars strategists such as Edward Teller and by economists such as George Shultz, who persuaded him that the Soviet economy was incapable of financing an arms race – which proved to be correct and forced Gorbachev to give in. It also seemed to me that the immoral nature (in an ethical, not a religious sense, for Reagan was the least religious of the presidents) of the Soviet Union determined his judgment and his conviction that the “Soviet evil” could not prevail.

Ronald Reagan is now considered one of the United States’ greatest presidents.  Nostalgia for that period has eclipsed the darker areas: unemployment was higher than it is now, and there were the military operations in Nicaragua and Lebanon that ended catastrophically, the neglect of the AIDS epidemic, racist violence by police often left unpunished, and the fact that the fall of the USSR came only after Reagan’s departure. The enthusiasm for Reagan on the right, and the end of contempt for him on the left, can undoubtedly be explained by the simplicity of his arguments, his faith in the West’s values, and the fit between the man, the message, and the manner of expression.

Reagan’s manuscripts are preserved at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  There one can verify that he wrote his speeches with his own pen, with a great clarity of style. He was not surrounded, as his successors have been, by a whole squadron of marketing advisors who weighed every word before the president uttered it like a parakeet without conviction. Only Nancy Reagan read over his manuscripts and gave advice.  We today, in the West, sorely miss such “idiots” with simple ideas among our politicians, who would write speeches themselves in an understandable language, and whose actions would coincide with their convictions.

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