President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

By Lou Cannon | Go to book overview
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22
VISIONS AND LEGACIES

We meant to change a nation, and instead we changed a world.

RONALD REAGAN, JANUARY 11, 19891

ONE OF RONALD REAGAN'S FANTASIES as president was that he would take Mikhail Gorbachev on a tour of the United States so the Soviet leader could see how ordinary Americans lived. Reagan often talked about it. He imagined that he and Gorbachev would fly by helicopter over a working-class community, viewing a factory and its parking lot filled with cars and then circling over the pleasant neighborhood where the factory workers lived in homes "with lawns and backyards, perhaps with a second car or a boat in the driveway, not the concrete rabbit warrens I'd seen in Moscow." The helicopter would descend, and Reagan would invite Gorbachev to knock on doors and ask the residents "what they think of our system." 2 The workers would tell him how wonderful it was to live in America.

Reagan never ceased to marvel at his own country, which experience had taught him was a land of opportunity in which neither inherited wealth nor a prestigious education was prerequisite for success. Reagan's own parents had been too poor to own a home, let alone a second car or a boat, and Reagan believed himself to be a most typical American. He had the advantage over other politicians of never thinking himself special, despite all the special things that he had done. He accepted the presidency as his destiny, not his due, and viewed his extraordinary career as vindicating the promise of America. In his own eyes, Reagan was Everyman, or at least every American. He credited his success to a system in which "everyone can rise as high and as far as his ability will take him." 3

Reagan held an innocent and unshakable belief in the myth of American exceptionalism. "Someone once said that the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of

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