Ronald Reagan, Hedgehogs and the November Election
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Since Ronald Reagan's passing, the media have been filled with a celebration of his youthful spirit, his indomitable optimism, his faith in America's greatness and in America's goodness. His words have been reverberating: "morning again in America," "springtime of hope," "a promised land," "the last best hope of man on earth."
The imagery varied, but a single, overarching principle remained: Reagan's pledge to return America to its essential role as "a shining city on a hill," a place of goodness, promise and hope.
No, I'm not speaking ill of the dead. I'm referring to the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin who famously divided mankind into hedgehogs and foxes, taking his cue from a line in an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
According to Berlin, the fox will "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way." This is in sharp contrast to the hedgehog's "unchanging, all embracing . . . unitary inner vision."
Above all else, it is Reagan's unwaveringly positive vision of America that the nation -- friends and foes alike -- is honoring this week. But once all the eulogizing is over, some powerful lessons will remain for the November election.
You see, George Bush is presenting himself as a steadfast hedgehog, and at the same time trying to paint John Kerry as an intellectually promiscuous fox -- and a flip-flopping fox to boot.
Not a bad strategy, since there's no question that the country is longing for a hedgehog at the helm. If anything, this week has both confirmed and fed the hunger for hedgehoggery. Which is why there is no way that a fox, even a very clever fox, can beat a hedgehog, even a fanatical, delusional, incompetent hedgehog like George Bush. We are sick and tired of foxy triangulating and foxy slicing-and-dicing of the message.
The memorial pomp and circumstance and remembrance of GOP triumphs past surrounding Reagan's death have already given Bush's sagging approval ratings a bounce. But in the end, the president's vision is an irrevocably dark one, with fear at its heart. While Reagan rarely missed an opportunity to invoke America's greatness, Bush rarely misses a chance to scare and divide us.
Reagan spoke of an America whose "heart is full; her torch is still golden, her future bright . . . She will carry on unafraid, unashamed and unsurpassed. In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America's is."
Bush spoke of an America threatened by "thousands of dangerous killers ... now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning," cautioning that "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us ... We cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Which America would you rather live in?
"Threat" must have really focus group-tested well, because the word runs like a dark thread through Bush's speeches: "a threat, a real threat"; "an unique and urgent threat"; "a real and dangerous threat"; "a serious and growing threat"; "a threat of unique urgency"; "a grave threat"; "a much graver threat than anybody could have possibly imagined."
Reagan built his legacy on hope; Bush has built his on fear. And no matter how hard Karl Rove tries, he'll never be able to cloak Bush in Reagan's mantle. It just doesn't fit.
So it is into this void that John Kerry must stride, offering the American people a wise and hopeful and unifying hedgehog to counter Bush's dangerous and dogmatic and divisive one.
To do this, he doesn't have to turn himself into the second coming of the Great Communicator. As Reagan once said of his ability to connect with the public: "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference. It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
In other words, John Kerry doesn't need speaking lessons or media coaching or more down-home outfits. He just needs to speak of great things.
Fortunately, he's already doing it: "More than ever, Americans are desperate for us to leave the petty and the partisan behind, and reach for America's higher promise. And the reason is simple: America is more than a piece of geography -- more than a name of a country; it is the most powerful idea in human history, freedom and equal opportunity for all. And that idea demands a solemn responsibility from every citizen -- that we do all that we can to help realize the promise of America."
Now he has to drive this bold and buoyant vision home, not just occasionally but again and again and again. The great lesson of Ronald Reagan's career is the power of knowing what your core vision is -- and never leaving home without it.
John Kerry has appropriately cancelled all of his major public events scheduled for this week -- including a pair of multimillion-dollar fund-raising concerts in Los Angeles and New York.
He should use the break to come out swinging with his inner hedgehog in full public view.