It's hard to recognize history, the significance of a leader or the rise of a successful ideology when you're living in the middle of it. The polarities of partisanship are so severe that enemies and uncritical idolaters ride a seesaw of justification and denigration. Clear thinking is hard to do. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Fortunately, time, events and awareness have a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Heroes emerge, ideas flower. When Winston Churchill urged Britain to re-arm and recognize the menace rising to power in Germany in the 1930s, many of his countrymen called him a warmonger. With hindsight, of course, everyone recognizes him as a visionary, although many of his opponents never forgave him for exposing the weakness of their naive pacifism.
Sometimes such recognition of the obvious comes in one generation. Sometime it takes longer. Today we're witnessing a triumph of conservative ideology. Just how long it will take the message to filter down to the intellectual elites, who don't know any better, is not clear. The overeducated class will probably need at least one more presidential election to recognize how worn and stale their ideology has become.
The prophet of this message is Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, one of the last surviving conservative Democrats, who makes his case in his new book, "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat." The antiwar leftists of his party, in his words "the soft-belly peaceniks" who think of foreign policy as "fuzzy-feeling social work," inhabit only the shell of a party once led by FDR and JFK.
He describes the Democratic hangers-on in Hollywood as suffering from both hypocrisy and hubris. Martin Sheen and Sean Penn, movie actors who make millions playing make-believe soldiers, have no respect for the real fighting men who wear the uniform: "They are lower than a snake's belly . all gurgle and no guts."
After that the senator really gets mad. He points his finger directly at Howard Dean, who is not alone but the "worst offender" who appeals to the Democratic base of "doom and gloomers." Howard Dean boasts that he belongs to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, but Mr. Miller scorns him as a member of the "whining wing of the Democratic Party."
Coinciding with Zell Miller's new book is the publication of the paperback version of "Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism," by Hoover scholar Peter Schweizer. It's worth reading - or re-reading. Writing from letters and archival papers heretofore kept secret, he places Ronald Reagan at the heart of the conservative ideology that triumphed over the Cold War.
He cites the ancient fable of the fox and hedgehog to explain the difference between Ronald Reagan and certain prominent contemporary Democrats: The hedgehog focuses on one big thing, the foxes run off in several directions at once. Jimmy Carter was a fox. Ronald Reagan was a hedgehog. "The 'one big thing' Reagan knew was the power and value of human freedom, which proved to be the defining principle of his worldview."
Mr. Reagan accelerated the arms race with the Soviet Union for two reasons - to build up American defenses against a lethal enemy and to destroy the Russian economy as it tried to keep up. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was crucial to this strategy and Mikhail Gorbachev, no dummy he, understood that. He offered great concessions to President Reagan if he would give up SDI. But the president knew better.
"If we truly believe that our way of life is best," he asked, "aren't the Russians more likely to recognize that fact and modify their stand if we let their economy become unhinged, so the contrast is apparent?" It was a strategy that worked. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the rest is history.
New threats must be dealt with today, and the Democratic social-worker wing looks at Iraq and runs for the exits. The enemies of George W. Bush, like the enemies of Ronald Reagan, dismiss the president as a dunce (without even the qualification "amiable"). The Democratic wannabes look a lot like foxes, chasing one idea after another, desperately searching for the fatal mistake that can be portrayed as scandal. The president looks more and more like a hedgehog, focused on the worldview.
"A free Iraq, most everybody agrees, can transform the Middle East," writes Zell Miller. "There will be times when it looks like it's not worth it. But in the long stretch of history, it will be worth it."