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Three Who Changed the World

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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I don't say that everybody has been waiting for it, but I was, and now it is out. The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by the distinguished journalist John O'Sullivan, packs into an engaging narrative the detail and color of three decades of transformation-spiritual, political, and economic. The three figures who changed the world are, of course, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher. For anyone who came of political age by the 1970s, the book is a reminder of just how much has changed. "Ah yes," a reader might find himself saying again and again, "I had almost forgotten that." For younger readers, this is an account of "the olden days" that persuasively explains how we got to where we are.

Admittedly, there are asymmetries here. Mrs. Thatcher is not a figure of historical consequence anywhere near equal to that of John Paul or Reagan. Repulsing the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, for instance, is a long way from the Solidarity revolution in Poland or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Her prominence in O'Sullivan's story is in part a result of his having worked with her closely. And he is, after all, a Brit, although a very American Brit. Having said that, however, by the end of the book one comes to understand just how crucial was her supportive role in moving this country as well as hers beyond what O'Sullivan calls "The Indian Summer of Liberaldom," which is the title of his first chapter. In the 1970s, O'Sullivan writes, "Revolutions of every kind-sexual, religious, political, economic, social-were breaking out from the campus to the Vatican to the rice paddies of the Third World. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, now actually being implemented, was liberating gays, lesbians, housewives, unhappy spouses, single parents-and, of course, those who wanted to sleep with them-from closets of either silence or irksome duty." (The importance of those who wanted to sleep with them is too easily forgotten.) The right of women to kill their offspring was legalized, Christian faith was being transmogrified into sundry liberation theologies, and Richard Nixon announced that "We're all Keynesians now."

"Liberals dominated debate and the general direction of policy even when they were out of power," O'Sullivan writes. "And though they sometimes lost the power of government through election defeats, they and their colleagues almost never lost power in the bureaucracy, the courts, the universities, the media, the charitable sector, and the great cultural institutions. The West-Europe more than America but both to different degrees-was governed by the assumptions of a liberal church just as Christendom had been governed according to the assumptions of the conservative Roman Catholic Church." That was the order that O'Sullivan calls Liberaldom.

There followed "the nightmare years." It was taken as axiomatic that the West, and America in particular, was in decline. In 1975, "the dramatic photographs of U.S. helicopters lifting off the Saigon embassy with desperate Vietnamese clinging to their undercarriages both dramatized the defeat and underscored America's betrayal of its allies." It was more betrayal than defeat. I could never forget the millions in the reeducation camps, or the boat people, as they were called, who drowned in their effort to flee the new regime. But I had almost forgotten that note written by Sirik Matak. He had been the Cambodian prime minister and he refused the U.S. ambassador's offer of escape. "I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion," he wrote. "As for you and, in particular, for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty." Remaining in Phnom Penh, Sirik Matak was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, along with nearly a quarter of the country's population.

Switching Sides

In the great moral and political contests of the time, O'Sullivan writes, "America switched sides." One may object that that is putting it too strongly, but there is no denying that, in influential opinion-making circles, it became axiomatic that America had been and continued to be "on the wrong side of history." Economically, and in almost every other respect, the party was over. In 1972 the Club of Rome had published The Limits to Growth. Robert Lekachman of New York University was joined by other eminent economists in announcing: "The era of growth is over and the era of limits is upon us. It means the whole politics of the country has changed."

While intellectuals in the West spoke about superpower convergence and a "third way" between capitalism and socialism, Leonid Brezhnev boasted in 1973 that the "correlation of forces" meant that by 1985 "we will be able to extend our will wherever we need to." Europe was responding to terrorism by caving into threats and releasing terrorists, including the murderers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. O'Sullivan calls these "the nightmare years," and one is reminded of Philip Jenkins' recent book on the seventies, Decade of Nightmares.

O'Sullivan credits Jimmy Carter with putting human rights center-stage in foreign policy and believes that his foreign policy "held together intellectually." But the premise was that the United States had to accommodate itself to large historical forces over which we had little control. "Carter's beliefs were not anti-American; he was a patriot who had served in the military. Nor were they ?un-American' as that word had acquired a special meaning the postwar years. But they might fairly be described as ?post-American,' as they assumed that the ?American century' had come to a premature end, that America was losing its preeminent role in global politics as other nations caught up, and that American values would have to be reshaped to conform to these new realities." With U.S. hostages in Iran and so much else, writes O'Sullivan, it seemed to friends and enemies alike that "Carter's foreign policy was one of active helplessness."

Enter the world-changing trio. Their appearance on the world stage at about the same time was not expected. As O'Sullivan puts it, John Paul was too Catholic, Thatcher was too conservative, and Reagan was too American. It is true that Thatcher's bid for party leadership was thought to be a long shot. And Reagan, who was going on seventy when he ran in 1980, was thought by Europeans to be too American, as in "cowboy." Whether Karol Wojtyla was viewed as "too Catholic" to be elected pope depends upon one's reading of the Catholic circumstance in the late seventies. Read through the lens of the destabilized Catholicism of the United States and Western Europe in the years following Vatican II, and through radical undertakings such as liberation theology in Latin America, Wojtyla may have looked like a reactionary, but that is not how he was seen by the cardinals who elected him in October 1978. He was seen to be very much a man of the council who would bring an infusion of energy to the Church's engagement with the world, and not least with the communist regimes dominating much of Europe.

In his treatment of John Paul, O'Sullivan draws heavily, as any writer on this subject must, on George Weigel's authoritative biography, Witness to Hope. Throughout his book, O'Sullivan weaves connections between his three figures, making much, for instance, of the assassination attempts against John Paul and Reagan in 1981. There was also the Brighton hotel bombing, in which Thatcher came near to being killed. Unlike Thatcher, the pope and the president discerned a providential guidance and purpose in their close brushes with death.

O'Sullivan gives detailed attention, as one would expect, to the ending of the Cold War, focusing on John Paul's indispensable role with Solidarity in Poland and on Reagan's adroit use of the Strategic Defense Initiative in negotiations with the Soviets. O'Sullivan highlights Reagan's intensely personal commitment to nuclear disarmament, a commitment that was not shared by many of his advisers but was understood and appreciated, says O'Sullivan, by John Paul. An interesting sidelight in the narrative of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union is recently released documents containing notes on meetings in Moscow with Senator Edward Kennedy in which, if the Soviet notes are accurate, the senator was advising the Soviet leaders on how best to defeat the strategy of the United States. As I say, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is a valuable book. Dr. Johnson said we have a greater need of being reminded than of being instructed. This book does both. O'Sullivan concludes: "In all three cases-Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul-it is a spiritual element that best explains them and their achievements. All three, in subtly different ways, taught and embodied the virtue of hope." Nobody should want to argue with that.

Copyright (c) 2007 First Things (February 2007).

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Posted: 22-Mar-07

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