By Judd Gregg - 05/05/14 06:00 AM EDT
Since the end of World War II, two Americans more than any others have changed our culture, our way of governance and our nation.
King would be immediately accepted by the liberal intelligentsia as deserving this recognition. But in fact he deserves this acknowledgement from all.
No one had a more pervasive and positive impact on the restructuring of our national community than he did. In this regard, no one even comes close to his stature during the post-World War II time. Over the rest of our nation’s history, only President Lincoln is comparable in this respect.
King simply reset the course of our culture. This should have occurred long before his time but it took his presence and leadership to do it. He made America a fundamentally better place through his individual force and purpose, built on his belief in equality and his commitment to nonviolent change.
Reagan would get the same distinction from conservatives, for being a potent force for a better America and a better world. But, again, such an acknowledgement should come from all who are honest about the direction of America in the post-World War II period.
Reagan understood, expressed, drove and reinforced the core values of democracy. And he did so in a world that was at serious risk of losing faith in these essential elements of freedom and prosperity in the face of totalitarianism and collectivism. He reaffirmed America’s belief in itself and the world’s belief in American ideals.
There are, of course, others who significantly affected our nation’s course during this time. President Eisenhower led the nation during the most dangerous days of potential nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. President Johnson created the legislation that gave legal force to the aspirations of Martin Luther King and set forth the key elements of the social safety net.
I would also include Milton Friedman on this historical roll of honor. He confronted and dissected the misdirection of Keynesian economics and drove the validation of the market economy. Any number of scientific greats such as Jonas Salk, James Watson and Bill Gates also merit praise.
But, although the contributions from all these people to a better America in the post-World War II period were dramatic, they do not equate to what King and Reagan did in fundamentally changing our country and the world for the better.
What did these two extraordinary men have in common?
They believed in and personified what Lincoln called “the better angels” at the core of our nation’s people.
Both were vilified. Both were seen by their opponents as leading their followers and the nation toward chaos and failure. Both were guided by an inner faith that was based, for lack of a better term, on kindness and a confidence that people, especially Americans, were essentially good.
We, as a people, were so fortunate to have them arrive on our country’s political landscape when they did. They simply changed so much of significance and for the better. They returned us to the path of greatness that our founders had set out as our direction about 200 years earlier.
King and Reagan may have seemed different, but at their cores they were very similar. They succeeded because they expressed their views and their goals in terms that touched at the basic goodness of a large majority of Americans, brought them together and gave them faith in each other and in our nation.
Those who govern us today, as well as those who wish to lead us tomorrow, might want to consider what these two men did and how they did it.
It is not the politics of division, whether proselytized by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his allies or President Obama, that will touch this nation’s sense of self. It is the course of King and Reagan.
They spoke to our unity and our culture of hope, and brought forth our better angels. They revitalized our nation’s spirit and called on the amazing strength of the American people.
It is this kind of leadership, based on kindness and faith in our people as one, that will allow us to continue this exceptional quest called America.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.