Were he alive today, Ronald Reagan would have turned 102 years old. He lives in the hearts of his fans (like me), of course, which is why his birthday is always a special day, even though, since 2004, he hasn’t been around to celebrate it.
Reagan’s hold on the modern Republican party and the American right in general is powerful and legendary, and it is a direct consequence of his tremendous political and historical legacy that libertarians and conservatives on the right or the center-right look to potential political leaders and invariably ask themselves “is that the next Ronald Reagan?” I realize that this practice persists because Ronald Reagan was a great man and a great president, but it is high time for the practice to come to an end.
Ronald Reagan’s place in history is secure. Thanks to his leadership, malaise gave way to optimism, stagnation and recession gave way to a long and robust economic recovery that we would give our eye-teeth for right about now. Oh, and thanks in very large part to Ronald Reagan, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union—and Marxism-Leninism in general—was consigned to the ash-heap of history. Just as Reagan predicted it would be. Only churls would deny that Reagan was a consequential and transformative president, and while I admit that there are a lot of churls in the world, I highly doubt that they are going to be able to do much to revise what the history books have to say about the Reagan presidency. Churls don’t make for good historians, and they certainly don’t make for compelling story-tellers.
But there is another part of the Reagan legacy that ought to be celebrated by us: Ronald Reagan was entirely comfortable in his own skin. He knew who he was, he liked who he was, he liked his life, he had a healthy appreciation for his gifts and talents and he was bound and determined to make an original mark on American history. Herman Melville said that “[i]t is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” Judy Garland instructed “[a]lways be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” Reagan instinctively understood the truth contained in Melville’s and Garland’s advice, and he practiced what they preached as naturally as most people breathe. He never put on airs, he never tried to be something or someone he was not, and he knew that to attempt to do so would be to court disaster.
This is not to say that Reagan did not have heroes who inspired him. At one time in his youth, he was a New Deal Democrat who idolized Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even after he became a conservative Republican, he still looked up to Roosevelt. But Reagan never tried to be a carbon copy of Roosevelt. He knew that he and Roosevelt were two different people, who faced different challenges during their presidencies, and he knew that the American people elected him to be their 40th president so that they could benefit from Reaganesque political gifts, not Rooseveltian ones. To fulfill his mandate to the American people, Ronald Reagan had to be himself, because that was what the American people expected him to be. That’s what they voted for him to be. By doing what came naturally to him—being himself—Reagan did right by the voters.
With all of that in mind, can we please stop asking whether some aspiring leader on the right is “the next Ronald Reagan”? There is no “next Ronald Reagan.” Reagan was sui generis. They broke the mold when they made him, and our current age may well require different skill sets to meet different challenges.
None of this is to say that Reagan cannot continue to be respected and admired. None of this is to say that Reagan cannot continue to be a source of inspiration for today’s aspiring leaders—just as FDR was a source of inspiration for Reagan. But gentle readers, I trust you have noticed that few—if any—are asking aspiring political leaders on the right whether they are “the next George Washington,” “the next Thomas Jefferson,” or “the next Abraham Lincoln.” And yet, despite the lack of these questions, Washington’s, Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s places in history as transformative and consequential leaders—great leaders—is secure. Given the scope of Reagan’s achievements and accomplishments, why should anyone think otherwise when it comes to his legacy?
I couldn’t possibly imagine myself running for office. But if I did, and if someone asked me whether I was “the next Ronald Reagan,” I would respond with “no, but I am the first Pejman Yousefzadeh, and I intend to be a first rate Pejman Yousefzadeh. And I would rather fail at being Pejman Yousefzadeh than succeed at being Ronald Reagan 2.0, because you can only be a first rate version of yourself. You can never be a first rate version of someone else.”
And paradoxically, you know who might just approve of that answer? A guy who was entirely comfortable in his own skin: Ronald Reagan.