Confident of capitalism, unpopular in Europe - he succeeded on every front

He came to office with two big ideas: there was nothing Americans could not achieve; the Soviet system would not endure

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I once suggested to Margaret Thatcher that there was a paradox in her relations with Ronald Reagan. However much she admired him she would never have had him in her government, even in a lowly capacity, for he could not grasp detail. "Ron may not understand detail," she replied, "he does understand the principles necessary for the restoration of American greatness." There could be less appropriate epitaphs.

I once suggested to Margaret Thatcher that there was a paradox in her relations with Ronald Reagan. However much she admired him she would never have had him in her government, even in a lowly capacity, for he could not grasp detail. "Ron may not understand detail," she replied, "he does understand the principles necessary for the restoration of American greatness." There could be less appropriate epitaphs.

Back in 1980, when Mr Reagan won the presidency, American greatness was an embattled concept. Watergate and Vietnam were fresh wounds. The America-hating academic left was trying to persuade everyone that the country was fundamentally sick. That chimed in with some of President Carter's rhetoric. He often seemed to relish the role of hell-fire preacher, telling his fellow countrymen how sinful they were. At the same time, a number of economists were producing treatises along the lines of "the greying of America"; insisting that the US's economic successes were all in the past.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Russians were about to deploy SS-20 missiles. The Soviet goal of neutralising or even Finlandising Germany did not seem unattainable. There was an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

Which left Ronald Reagan entirely unaffected. Even Margaret Thatcher had occasional dark nights of the soul when she wondered whether the Tory wets were necessarily wrong when they claimed that the best we could hope for was an orderly management of decline. Ronald Reagan had no such doubts. The first and, thus far, the greatest of the neo-conservatives, he came to office with two big ideas. First, that if only their government would let them, there was nothing which the American people could not achieve. Second, that the Soviet system would not endure.

This put him at odds with European conservatism, which is based on limits and scepticism. Traditional conservatives would have insisted that even America could not afford expensive social programmes and generous living standards and an enormous military budget: the result must be an unsustainable deficit. Some of the old European right also saw the Iron Curtain as a source of security; it would be dangerous if the new President upset the Soviets.

President Reagan took no notice. To him, the deficit was just a loan to finance a business. As America was such a good business, it could afford a big loan. Like many Americans, he also believed that if the rest of the world were given the freedom to choose, it would opt for American values.

This can have its irritating aspects. Especially in cultural matters, the notion that mankind is on an evolutionary ladder with America at the top is not universally appealing. But the doctrine that all men are brothers under the skin is a noble one; in the case of the Soviet Union, it was a liberating one. Ronald Reagan himself would never have put up with Soviet communism, nor would anyone he knew. So he was convinced that one day soon, the Russian people would break free.

In the meantime, he was determined to win the arms race. He did, and in so doing, he also won the Cold War. The Soviets concluded that to compete, they had to reform. Hence Gorbachev, who tried to modernise the system and ended by destroying it. But it was the pressure exerted by Ronald Reagan which led the Soviet system to implode. He was even more important in the defeat of communism than Franklin Roosevelt was in the defeat of Nazism.

In the process, he became almost as unpopular in Europe as George Bush now is. He too was portrayed as a half-witted cowboy and a warmonger. When he proposed his strategic defense initiative (SDI), a system of anti-ballistic missile defence which, he offered to share with the Soviet Union, the left promptly rechristened it "Star Wars'', implying that it was a combination of Hollywood fantasy and a sinister plan to use outer space to make war on the Russians. In reality, there was only one valid criticism of SDI: that it was destabilising idealism.

The President inherited a defence establishment which had grown comfortable with mutually assured destruction (MAD), the assumption that neither superpower would ever start a nuclear war because it would be bound to destroy them both. To Ronald Reagan, the idea that defence had to be based on destruction was repulsive; he thought that MAD was mad. So SDI was an attempt to find a way to deter a nuclear attack by ensuring that it would be bound to fail. Given the certainty of nuclear proliferation, there is only one complaint that could be directed at Mr Reagan and his successors over SDI. They have been too slow to deploy it.

In right-wing circles, Ronald Reagan was almost alone in his revulsion against MAD; Margaret Thatcher certainly did not share it. In general, she was far more prepared to have semi-public disagreements with the President than Tony Blair is with George Bush. But that never inhibited Mr Reagan's affection for her. As heads of government normally sit next to their foreign ministers at high-level international gatherings, the placement should have been Reagan, Shultz, Thatcher, Howe. The President always swapped his name card with George Shultz's, so that he got to sit next to Maggie.

At the Versailles Nato summit in 1982, shortly after the Falklands War, there was a photo-call before a great luncheon. Some journalists mingled with the snappers and started asking the President questions about a recent disagreement between the then Secretary of State Al Haig, and the UN Ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The President gave vague answers: "Look, I'm a long way from home. How can I know what's been going on?''

Mrs T looked crosser and crosser. Then one of the journalists made a fatal error. He asked her a question. Her response was immediate. "This is not a press conference. It is only a photo-call. You have no business asking questions.'' As the journalists went into full retreat, the President joined in: "Yes, boys, that's right: no more questions.''

There was also serious business, and the President was due to have a bilateral with Mrs Thatcher. In preparatory sessions, his aides had advised him to press her to be more conciliatory to the Argentinians on certain points. Mr Reagan had not disagreed. He had merely made notes on his cue cards.

The meeting took place. The President emerged with a beatific smile on his face. The aides did not need to ask. They knew that the cards had gone unconsulted and that no pressing had taken place. "Gee,"' said the President, "she is some lady."

He was some man. His beloved Maggie was right. He understood the great principles; he acted on them; he succeeded. He and FDR were the two greatest presidents of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan was one of the small group of American presidents who made a vital difference. All mankind should be grateful to him, and salute his passing.

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