By J.F. McKenna
As the old year winds down, if not outright unravels, here’s to happy holidays and a warmly ruthless coming year.
Sure, I know such end-of-the-year sentiment won’t make me the No.1 draft pick at American Greetings in 2015. But it’s a sincere wish for the hometown and the nation, even as I review the collective disaster generated by cop-citizen controversies, a generally party-pooped economy, a well-earned wimpy image on the international stage, and a generally lousy national self-image that has replaced self-evident truths and the securing of “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
All that noted, you ask, why stock up on ruthlessness for the new year? A fair question deserving a reasonable response.
What initially triggered my novel holiday greeting was the reading of these lines from speechwriter and author Peggy Noonan’s Character Above All: “Ronald Reagan is always described as genial and easygoing, but [economist] Marty Anderson used to call him ‘warmly ruthless.’ He would do in the nicest possible way what had to be done. He was nice as he could be about it, but he knew where he was going, and if you were in the way you were gone. And you might argue his ruthlessness made everything possible.”
The Reagan legacy of peace and prosperity, of course, has migrated from the pages of contemporary history to the Big Book of Legendary Leadership. As even one of his successors—the current President—acknowledged, “When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man his due, even if I never gave him my vote.”
It may be a Paine to admit; but these are most certainly the times that try men’s souls. So a generous dose of so-called Reagan ruthlessness—that vision for the better America, one that must trump the vain and the venal—is my holiday wish for the nation that the 40th President called the “the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”
Without question, a Reaganesque renewal of American commitment to freedom on the world stage must top the coming year’s agenda. Nothing continues to blur our notion of war’s frontline more clearly than the jihadists’ perversion of the old Disneyland saying “It’s a small world, after all.” Yeah—small, lethal, unmerciful and aimed right at us.
For all those in office now, as well as for all those considering leadership roles in the future, Ronald Reagan’s words from May 1993 remain a guide to future success: “Despite the spread of democracy and capitalism, human nature has not changed. It is still an unpredictable mixture of good and evil. Our enemies may be irrational, even outright insane, driven by nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or ideology. They do not fear the United States for its diplomatic skills or the number of automobiles and software programs it produces. They respect only the firepower of our tanks, planes and helicopter gunships.”
President Reagan likewise recognized that a strong nation requires a strong economy, aka free enterprise. For that chief executive, there was no substitute—especially government. And the former movie star knew first-hand the personal tragedy of a weak economy. In a town of deals and connections, he was a ruthless advocate of the American worker, the man or woman who had to bring home the paycheck.
“To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill,” Reagan recalled in a 1976 speech. “Back in those dark Depression days I saw my father on a Christmas Eve open what he thought was a Christmas greeting from his boss. Instead, it was the blue slip telling him he no longer had a job. The memory of him sitting there holding that slip of paper and then saying in a half-whisper, ‘That’s quite a Christmas present,’ it will stay with me as long as I live.”
And undergirding the Reagan Era’s strong nation and robust economy were always the people who cherished the values that guarantee a lasting civilization. As Reagan recalled in his autobiography, “I learned from my father the value of hard work and ambition, and maybe a little something about telling a story. From my mother, I learned the value of prayer, how to have dreams and believe I could make them come true.”
If that be the portrait of the ruthless man, the nation needs many more ruthless folks, this holiday season and beyond.
Former West Park resident J.F. McKenna is a journalist, copywriter and communications consultant. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh, to which he serves as Cleveland’s unofficial foreign minister. Reach him at email@example.com .