George Will

     WASHINGTON -- One measure of a leader's greatness is this: By the time he dies the dangers that summoned him to greatness have been so thoroughly defeated, in no small measure by what he did, it is difficult to recall the magnitude of those dangers, or of his achievements. So if you seek Ronald Reagan's monument, look around, and consider what you do not see.

     The Iron Curtain that scarred a continent is gone, as is the Evil Empire responsible for it. The feeling of foreboding -- the sense of shrunken possibilities -- that afflicted Americans 20 years ago has been banished by a new birth of the American belief in perpetually expanding horizons.

     In the uninterrupted flatness of the Midwest, where Reagan matured, the horizon beckons to those who would be travelers. He traveled far, had a grand time all the way, and his cheerfulness was contagious. It was said of Dwight Eisenhower -- another much-loved son of the prairie -- that his smile was his philosophy. That was true of Reagan, in this sense: He understood that when Americans have a happy stance toward life, confidence flows and good things happen. They raise families, crops, living standards and cultural values; they settle the land, make deserts bloom, destroy tyrannies.

     Reagan was the last president for whom the Depression -- the years when America stopped working -- was a formative experience. Remarkably, the 1930s formed in him a talent for happiness. It was urgently needed in the 1980s, when the pessimism of the intelligentsia was infecting people with the idea that America had passed its apogee and was ungovernable.

     It also was said then that the presidency destroyed its occupants. But Reagan got to the office, looked around, said, ``This is fun. Let's saddle up and go for a ride.'' Which he did, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon. Scolds, who thought presidents were only serious when miserable, were scandalized.

     In an amazingly fecund 27-month period, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Reagan came to office. The pope and the president had been actors. Reagan said he wondered how presidents who have not been actors could function. Certainly the last century's greatest democratic leaders -- Churchill, FDR -- mastered the theatrical dimension of politics.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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