GRAVER: Happy birthday, President Reagan

Gravely Mistaken

The last week has seen its share of particularly biting partisanship among undergraduates. Some of the most prominent have been the protests at the Harvey Mansfield Master’s Tea and True Love Week’s “The Person as a Gift” lecture. In addition, the alleged sign-taking at Occupy New Haven has sparked controversy across campus. You almost wish that Clint Eastwood could walk onto campus and remind us of who we are and why we are here.

The political climate here is not simply heated. It’s combative. And while we view these instances through our Ivy League lens, what we see here is not so different from the scattered vitriol on our national stage.

I’m not going to write about civility. Granted, there is a strong case to be made for tempering our dialogue. But let’s face it — civility has become a hackneyed refuge, joining the umbrella constructs of tolerance, fairness and community.

Lost in the tempestuous climate of political opinion both at Yale and in America is something more distressing: We are losing our sense of common purpose. At Yale, we seem to forget that we have pledged to seek truth, explore ideas and thoughts from all perspectives and leave here capable of bringing light to our endeavors. In America, the very language that defines us as a country — success, prosperity, virtue and patriotism — has become a battleground.

But, as Edmund Burke said, “To make us love our country, our country must be lovely.” Our nation’s leaders’ defining job, ultimately, is to awaken in each of us a sense of what is lovely about our country and to rally us to that vision. In our highest office, we have a president who has failed at accomplishing this. But, in all fairness, the alternatives seem equally incapable.

Is it any wonder that the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad struck such a powerful nerve? Both parties were claiming his message of American resilience, strength and purpose for their own. And while Eastwood disavowed any politics in his message, it resembled nothing so much as — and echoed as nothing recently has — Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”

Earlier this week, Ronald Reagan would have celebrated his 101st birthday. At first reaction, Reagan is far from a great unifier of Yale students. As the conservative paradigm, he is often ridiculed, mocked and debunked — and only occasionally revered. But as we look back on the Reagan legacy, we all ought to admire an apolitical aspect of Reagan.

Looking back on the prospect of running against Reagan for president, Ted Kennedy once wrote, “He was more than a candidate at that time; he was a movement.” Reagan was not only able to make Americans hope again; He was able to ground that hope in a set of principles, values and morals that allowed our nation to hope for a shared purpose.

“The source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual,” Reagan said in his famous “Evil Empire” speech. Today, in a national dialogue almost exclusively encumbered with economic measurements and social statistics, the shallowness of our rhetoric lacks the ability to produce any greater aspiration to mitigate fixed ideological divisions.

There is arguably no greater testament to Reagan’s enduring inspiration than the number of statues of him erected beyond America’s borders. In town squares across the world, people pass his image with a quiet appreciation and affection. None of that comes from a global endearment for the Laffer Curve, the War on Drugs or the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the bench. The values Reagan championed — belief in life, natural rights and human liberty — transcend the temporarily political.

In essence, Reagan had the gifted persona that earned the trust of a nation. People trusted Reagan not primarily for his policies but for his principles.

Certainly, I don’t expect to convince my readers of Reagan’s overall value to our nation — but I would say that it does us all good to look at the chord he struck with all Americans. He saw the presidency as a trust granted him by the people. He believed in an American identity, and although one can dispute the merits of his programs and policies, he caused our country and the world to believe in it, too.

We pay a lot of lip service to the virtues of bipartisanship. But beyond the realm of legislative agendas and compromise, it takes a real intellectual courage and dispositional maturity to respect the opposition. So perhaps today we can take a step back from the fiery pettiness of late and wish President Reagan a happy belated birthday.

Come on, do it for the Gipper.

Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at


  • btcl

    Happy Birthday, President Reagan!!!!!!!!!!

  • disneyguy

    I’m sorry, but this is an example of collective revisionism at its finest. That Ted Kennedy quote? “Ted Kennedy once wrote, ‘He was more than a candidate at that time; he was a movement.'”

    Of course he was a movement; he is the result of Goldwater and the New Right–hardly a vision of respect and cooperation. To say that he somehow united the country in a way that Obama hasn’t is a blatantly inaccurate portrayal.

    Ask the poor, ask gay people during the AIDS crisis.

    If you want to talk about unity and “making our country lovely,” talk about LBJ and civil rights. I’m tired of pretending Reagan was some grand unifier when he was really the root cause of the insane partisanship today who could sugarcoat it with his Hollywood smile.

    • RexMottram08

      He won every state except Mondale’s Minnesota. He united the country in a way that Obama can only dream. Barry couldn’t hold Reagan’s jock.

      • disneyguy

        This, again, ignores the history in favor of popular narrative. A year before the election, Reagan’s prospects were not so rosy. If we see unemployment around 8% by this November, look for similarly over-performing results from Obama.

        That election was a lot less about Reagan and a lot more about lucky timing re:business cycles.

        • River_Tam

          > look for similarly over-performing results from Obama.

          Here’s a bet I’ll make with you, and you can hold me to it – I will stop commenting on the YDN boards permanently if Obama wins 49+ states in November.

        • RexMottram08

          The difference: Reagan’s policies were based on reality not fantasy.

          You expect green investment slushfunds and crushing medical “reforms” to produce 19 million jobs?

  • Leah

    When you disagree on foundational moral issues, disputes are bound to get heated. We should try for more productive forms of debate, but we shouldn’t paper over our differences or imagine ourselves to be united by more than a passionate love for truth.

    • croncor


  • Yalie14

    Wow – total revisionism.
    Happy birthday to the guy who raised taxes 11 times, increased the debt 189%, and somehow is the hero of today’s Republican Party.

    • yayasisterhood

      He lowered taxes by more than he raised them. Debt under Reagan ~50% GDP, debt under Obama ~100% GDP.

      • RexMottram08

        And let’s not forget that the tax increases were good faith gestures contingent on later spending cuts.

  • RexMottram08

    Happy Birthday Gipper!

    Won the Cold War (after many said it couldn’t, or even shouldn’t be won)

    Cut inflation and taxes

    19 million jobs created (not “created or saved”)

    We miss you!

  • RexMottram08

    The Soviet machine was always bankrupt (morally and financially.) Reagan knew it and called their bluff.

  • MB2014

    We can only hope that generations of Yale students will be spared future decades of Reagan birthday op-eds.

    • RexMottram08

      It would be a shame for them to learn about a real President.

      • AsianAdvantage


  • penny_lane
  • chandlerpv

    You all talk past the point of the article. These comments validate the very points made in the article. Such as:
    “Today, in a national dialogue almost exclusively encumbered with economic measurements and social statistics, the shallowness of our rhetoric lacks the ability to produce any greater aspiration to mitigate fixed ideological divisions”
    “Reagan is far from a great unifier of Yale students. As the conservative paradigm, he is often ridiculed, mocked and debunked”

    • disneyguy

      And I’m saying the principled, post-ideological idealism he inspired is a construction of modern Republican memory. The people he trampled and excluded to get there would probably object to the idealism to which he also paid lip service.

    • penny_lane

      We talk past the point because the point is laughable. Reagan managed to deceive a great many people, but that is not honorable. Ask most people around today who voted for Reagan, and they will admit it with notes of shame in their voices. You almost expect the Red Cross Knight to run into Reagan in the forest when you read Spenser. He was not a great unifier; simply a great deceiver, and that is terrifying, not admirable.

      • penny_lane

        FYI- I took DS H&P with Charles Hill. Best way ever to learn how Reaganites think about politics, nationalism and the citizenry. I was concerned about conservatives before, and I was VERY concerned after.

        • SY

          I was concerned about DS before, and more concerned now. No one is deceived by what Reagan achieved and what he left unfinished. He got the nation and world beyond the Vietnam military disaster, 21% inflation, malaise and the Cold War. He and everyone left unrepaired the current post-WWII institutions, including insolvent state and federal governments, corporate/legal gentry, failed schools, families and churches. The Hill generation and its old order will end, collapse and be replaced in 10-20 crisis years. The endgame is playing out now in the collapse of the European 60-year socialism and secularism experiment. The crisis of the old order is beginning its fourth year here, and has only a little to do with Reagan.

      • RexMottram08

        He managed to liberate millions more from the the tyranny of Communism, and the frustration of stagflation.

        • AsianAdvantage

          And that is the problem with some of these posters. They feel sad that the Berlin Wall fell, and that the Khmer Rouge is now on trial in Cambodia. Now, all they have left to gush about are Cuba and North Korea.

    • penny_lane

      PS- This sentence?:

      > in a national dialogue almost exclusively encumbered with economic measurements and social statistics, the shallowness of our rhetoric lacks the ability to produce any greater aspiration to mitigate fixed ideological divisions

      Gag me. What terrible writing. Though in a world where the conservative elite lives to “deceive, inveigle and obfuscate,” Mr. Graver will certainly fit right in.

  • River_Tam

    > Reagan — and especially his c-word of a wife

    Stay classy.

    • ohno

      Glad I missed seeing that before it was removed.

  • AsianAdvantage

    When then-Governor Reagan was told that if the University of California admitted students strictly on their academic qualifications, the nation’s finest public university could end up with an Asian majority, Reagan said, “So what?” In a nutshell, that about sums up this great American. Happy Birthday, President Reagan!

  • tomago

    To Mikelawyr2,
    Your comment, “Reagan — and especially his c-word of a wife — believed that the poor deserved to be poor. If they didn’t deserve to be poor . . . well, then, they wouldn’t be poor now”, is so staggeringly insulting and ignorant, I am surprised those at YDN allow such acrimony. Again, I entreat you to call your parents and apologize for wasting their money, as your imposture of spreading ordure could find home in a more economic environment…i.e., their basement. Do this ASAP, before the opprobrium of your classmates adds to the traducing of education you seem bent upon.

  • btcl


    I am not a particularly big fan of Harry Graver’s writing style. But by focusing on parts of the column that don’t actually contribute to the logical flow of his argument or by saying that the argument is simply too laughable to be worth responding to, you are participating in as much of a ‘deception’ as any politician can be accused of – refusing to respond to issues and covering it up with empty rhetoric.

    Moreover, it’s equally offensive to accuse Reagan, or any politician for that matter, of “deception.” Deception implies some sort of actual lie, which I don’t think you can argue Reagan did, or that you think people were too dumb/confused/misguided to choose who they should vote for, which is outrageously condescending.


      Maybe Penny Lane thinks people who don’t get her ‘Fairie Queene’ references aren’t smart enough to know who they should vote for. Also, people who say they vote for Reagan do it in a confessing, embarrassed tone? That’s why he consistently places near the top of lists of who Americans identify as the best president, either in their life time or in history? Penny Lane clearly needs to break out of her box and talk to more people

    • penny_lane

      Um…Iran Contra?