In George Shultz's Words: An Appreciation of Reaganism and the President He Served

Ronald Reagan and George Shultz
American politician and US President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) (left) listens to a briefing by US Secretary of State George P Shultz in the White House, Washington DC, September 18, 1982. The pair were in Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K Deaver's office. Karl Schumacher/White House via CNP/Getty Images/Getty

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who died on Saturday, February 6, 2021, wrote an appreciation of Ronald Reagan for Newsweek in August last year.

Ronald Reagan's legacy remains with us, more vital than ever in these uncertain times.

When he took office as governor of California, Reagan assumed responsibility for a state that was in rocky shape; at the end of his term, California was golden again. When he became president of the United States, the country was adrift, inflation was out of control, the economy was in the doldrums, and the Cold War was as cold as it had ever been. By the time he left office, inflation was under control, the economy was expanding, the Cold War was all over except for the shouting, and America stood tall once again.

As president, Reagan presented the American people with carefully thought-out ideas that he successfully put into practice. Developing a strong and constructive agenda—much of which had been labeled unattainable in the early years of his presidency—he challenged the conventional wisdom on arms control, the need to stand up to Iran in the Persian Gulf, and the possibility of movement toward freedom in the Communist-dominated world. When he faced down the air traffic controllers in 1981, the world learned that Reagan could dig in and fight to win.

Reagan knew how to express a clear and simple view of a complex world. And with his fundamental decency, he appealed to people's best hopes, not their fears; to their confidence rather than their doubts. He did not accept the view that vigorous political opposition doomed an attractive concept. He would fight resolutely for ideas, believing that, if they were valid, he could persuade the American people to support them. On issue after issue, he changed the national and international agenda.

At the end of his presidency, Reagan was a different man from the person he was when he first entered the Oval Office. He was ever changing, on the move, always evolving in new and surprising ways. He was a doer, a pragmatist, a man who enjoyed hard physical tasks such as the ranch work he loved to do. But the brush clearing and fence fixing were also symbolic: from the land came not only strength and clarity but a vision—a vision of the West and America's endless horizon.

The American people reelected Reagan in one of the biggest landslides in history because they knew he trusted them. He conveyed to U.S. citizens that they need not be bound by class, race, childhood misfortune, poverty or bureaucracy. He was confident that they, the people, could make something of themselves; indeed, they could remake themselves continually.

Beneath Reagan's pragmatic attitude lay a bedrock of principle and purpose with which I was proud to be associated. He believed in being strong enough to defend one's interests, but he viewed that strength as a means, not an end in itself. He had confidence in himself and in his ideas, and was ready to negotiate from the strength that was so evident by the mid-1980s.

A fervent anti-Communist, Reagan believed that people everywhere would choose to throw off the shackles of Communism if they had the choice. He favored the superiority of market- and enterprise-based open trade, he had confidence in the ability of Americans to compete, and he believed that an integrated world economy would benefit America.

Reagan conveyed simple truths that ran deep and wide among the American people. His was an American creed: defend your country, value your family, make something of yourself, tell the government to get off your back, and tell the tyrants to watch their step.

As president, Reagan was a Republican, a conservative, a man of the right. But these labels will mislead historians who do not look beyond them. He came from the nation's heartland where folks can be down to earth—and yet believe that the sky is the limit when pursuing the American dream. Reagan was an optimist, a man who spoke the vocabulary of opportunity and had a vision of what we aspire to as a nation. In these unsettled times, it is heartening to remember Reagan's confidence in Americans and this nation's endless horizon.