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Ronald Reagan at 100: How America's 40th president passed a key test of character

Ronald Reagan wasn't perfect. He even lied to the American public. But I saw first hand how his commitment to integrity restored his presidency and helped him become the transformational leader America needed to win the cold war.

By David M. Abshire / February 4, 2011


In the midst of the many events marking the 100th birthday celebration of President Ronald Reagan on February 6, 2011, a bust of the 40th president will be unveiled at the Ronald Reagan Airport. However good the likeness, it will only be able to hint at what made Reagan the kind of president he was – and indeed what makes any man the kind of leader he becomes: his character.

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We may not be able to see such character cast in bronze, but I had a glimpse of it in the 1980s, when I served as US ambassdor to NATO and then as special counselor during the Iran-Contra affair.

In 1986, when Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev alone at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, it was a critical time in NATO history. As ambassador, I was trying to reenergize an alliance that appeared to be losing the final battle of the cold war because it was unwilling to match the deployment of the Soviet Union’s intermediate range missiles. Reagan and Gorbachev were together for over an hour. US advisers were beginning to fear when Reagan emerged to tell them, “This man is in trouble and looking for a way out.” They thought their president had been duped. But Reagan alone saw the opportunity to start the dance that ended the cold war without firing a shot. It was a time to transform history.

A stunning account

Immediately following Reagan’s meeting at the Reykjavik summit, he met with me, other ambassadors, and heads of government at NATO. Reagan gave a stunning account of what had happened. Throughout, Secretary of State George Shultz was on the edge of his chair for fear Reagan might trip up on the details, yet Reagan was surefooted throughout. The president of France, Francois Mitterrand, commented to me on the way out, “Votre president est magnifique.”


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