Leaders of the Free World

Book Excerpt: Paul Kengor, 'A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century'


By the time John Paul II returned to Rome, his first one-on-one with Ronald Reagan was only a few weeks away. The pope's staff would have briefed him thoroughly on the background and thinking of the new president. John Paul II might already have noticed certain Catholic sympathies in the Protestant Reagan. In his brief on Reagan, the pontiff would have learned that the fortieth president had a Catholic father, and might even have learned that Reagan's only sibling, Neil, had remained Catholic and in fact had become devout.

The Holy Father surely was aware also that Reagan had surrounded himself with Catholics on his staff, some of whom were fundamental to his growing efforts against the Soviet Union: Bill Casey, Bill Clark, and Clark's predecessor at the NSC, Dick Allen. Secretary of State Al Haig was Catholic (Haig's brother was a Jesuit priest). Reagan's chief speechwriter, Tony Dolan, was Catholic, a student of Latin and Aquinas. Dick Allen jokes that Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger, who was high Episcopalian, was "maybe even more Catholic than we all were."

Both John Paul II and Reagan were well aware of one preeminent commonality: their shared "dubious distinction" of having suffered, and survived, assassination attempts. We have already noted the many parallels between their near-death experiences. When the two men sat down one on one, they would find that the experiences shaped them in strikingly similar ways.

The shootings revealed, among many others things, an important similarity between Reagan and John Paul II: each man placed much stock in forgiveness. Lying in the hospital, holding on for his life, Reagan had prayed for forgiveness for his would-be assassin, John Hinckley; John Paul II did the same for Mehmet Ali Agca, and in late 1983 he would even visit Agca in prison to express his forgiveness.

A careful examination of the lives of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan reveals many other commonalities—a surprising number, given the obvious differences between their upbringings and chosen paths. Consider some basic biographical parallels. Each came from a family of four, with a brother, a mother, and a father. Both lost their beloved fathers about the same time, only weeks apart in the spring of 1941. Karol Wojtyła lost his mother when he was eight years old; Ronald Reagan quite nearly lost his mother when he was the same age.

In the mid-1940s, both young men suffered physical traumas that nearly took their lives. In March 1944 a German truck struck the young Karol and he spent weeks hospitalized. Three years later, in June 1947, a virulent strain of pneumonia wiped out Reagan for weeks. Both bed-ridden, they spent considerable time convalescing, thinking hard about whether they would recover and what they should ultimately do with their lives. For each, this was a time to discern the big picture, the call. These were moments that Bill Clark, who experienced such an epiphany himself (though later in life), referred to as a "wake-up call."

Both men took unconventional routes to positions of eminence, positions that, as George Weigel notes, "the conventional wisdom assumed they would never hold." Both had been actors, had done some writing, and had even dabbled in poetry since their youth (Karol Wojtyła wrote and published some fine poetry into adulthood). Both gave up acting reluctantly, but later found their acting skills helpful as they occupied public platforms. Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master general of the Dominicans, writes of Wojtyła, "As John Paul II, his theater skills found a fulfillment he could never have anticipated." That was true for Reagan as well. Weigel notes that their backgrounds in acting helped both men understand the power of words, which made them brilliant communicators. Moreover, each man was notably telegenic and photogenic, which helped as they operated constantly in front of the cameras. As leaders, John Paul II and Ronald Reagan had major appeal among young people. In 1984 Reagan won a huge majority (61 percent) of voters ages eighteen to twenty-four. Nearly thirty years later, a poll conducted shortly after Barack Obama's second inaugural asked Americans whom they would vote for in a presidential contest between Reagan and Obama. Reagan won in a landslide, taking 58 percent of the vote, and even defeated Obama among voters ages eighteen to thirty-four, the powerful youth segment that swept Obama into the White House. Similarly, John Paul II drew vast numbers of youngsters to the World Youth Day gatherings that he created. He inspired a sizable number of young men and women into religious life. Just as we speak of a "Reagan generation" in American politics, Catholics speak of a "JPII generation."

The similarities between the two men were not lost on Nancy Reagan, who saw John Paul II as a great man. Once, when reviewing old photos of various leaders, Mrs. Reagan gasped and smiled when she came across a picture of her and her husband with John Paul II. "Oh, my favorite!" she said warmly of the pontiff. (I must here add that Mrs. Reagan's favorite picture of her husband and John Paul II "is the one of the two of them in chairs sitting close to one another, with Ronnie speaking very earnestly and the pope listening very carefully." That photo graces the cover of this book.) When asked what she liked so much about the pontiff, Mrs. Reagan pointed to traits that she felt he shared with her husband: both had been actors, were outdoorsmen, were athletic, and were "charming, kind, gentle, and sincere."

Of course, the similarities ran even deeper than that. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan shared some important core convictions, principles that stemmed from their religious faiths. Weigel wrote that John Paul II understood human wickedness and the enduring power of evil in history, and how these could be overcome by the power of truth and by a shrewd sense of how the "children of light" could work to bend events in a more humane direction. Bill Clark said much the same about Ronald Reagan. The president and the pope, Clark observed, saw atheistic communism as an evil. Both men came to understand this evil very early, when others did not—John Paul II when he was a student, and Reagan during his acting days. Weigel adds that both men were "positive anticommunists" (his emphasis) who sought to counter communism with a positive alternative of human rights and freedom. Their fierce anticommunism did not prevent them from being nuclear abolitionists. (Only now do scholars recognize this aspect of Reagan's perspective; at the time, few appreciated that Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons.)

In part because of their unconventional paths to leadership, "both men were initially underestimated," said Clark. "Observers did not at first perceive their strength of intellect, courage, and vision." And yet, he added, both persevered in translating their personal vision into an underlying policy and strategy to defeat Soviet oppression and aggression. Weigel suggests that they were successful because they were creative and dynamic in their approach, not locked in to the standard "conceptual categories" of realpolitik or, for that matter, Ostpolitik and détente. Weigel adds that "both were unafraid" to challenge the conventional wisdom of their diplomats and bureaucracies.

Reagan and John Paul II believed in God's will and had a faith-based optimism about the future. The pope, in his own words, held a self-professed "conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence." Reagan had the same conviction. Moreover, said Clark, they shared a view that each had been given a "spiritual mission— a special role in the divine plan of life."

This shared conviction would become abundantly clear during their first meeting, in June 1982.

Frank Shakespeare, whom Reagan would appoint ambassador to the Vatican, and who briefed both the president and the pope, observed the two leaders keenly and points out that "both men were mystics." That is something perhaps more expected of a Catholic, but those who knew Reagan and who observed his faith side would quickly agree that that he had a mystical sense. Reagan wasn't shy about commenting on things like ghosts at the White House or the sudden appearances of rainbows or hearing his late father's voice at his funeral.

Beyond their faith-based understanding of the evils of communism and their belief in a merciful Providence, John Paul II and Reagan embraced other principles in common. For example, they insisted on the reinforcing relationship between faith and freedom; they unapologetically supported the sanctity and dignity of human life; they championed the singular importance of the individual over the state; and they both adhered to what in Catholic social thought is called subsidiarity, which holds that small or local organizations, rather than large, centralized authorities, should handle public functions that they can perform effectively. This last principle animated Reagan's passionate belief in limited government.

To understand the philosophical kinship that Reagan and John Paul II must have felt well beyond their anticommunism, consider just two of those categories. The first is faith and freedom. Ronald Reagan's understanding of freedom was not a libertarian one. One of the many leading philosophical spokesmen for conservatism whom Reagan knew and read was Russell Kirk. It was in his 1974 classic, The Roots of American Order, that Kirk wrote of the need for "ordered liberty," for ordering ourselves internally so as to secure the nation's external order. George Washington made the point in his First Inaugural Address, when he said that the "the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." In other words, self-government requires just that: self-government.

To Reagan—and to John Paul II—genuine freedom was not mere license. Freedom carried responsibilities rooted in faith. This is the Christian conception of freedom. In the New Testament, Galatians 5:13–14 states: "For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use your freedom as opportunities for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " Without the rock and rudder of faith, John Paul II said, freedom can become confused, perverse, and can even lead to the destruction of freedom for others.40 John Paul II's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, said that the West suffers from a "confused ideology of freedom," one that has unleashed a modern "dictatorship of relativism."

A second area of philosophical harmony centered on the sanctity of human life. Like John Paul II, Reagan believed that the right to life is the first and most fundamental of all human freedoms, without which other human freedoms cannot exist. "My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land," he stated. "And there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning." That statement is essentially identical to John Paul II's affirmation in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which referred to "the right to life" as "the first of the fundamental rights." Both the president and the pope called the right to life "God's greatest gift."

Really, on no other matter did Ronald Reagan and John Paul II agree as closely as they did on the paramount right to life of all individuals, from the womb to the tomb. Both men heralded the profundity of the American Founding Fathers' understanding of inalienable rights and how those rights reflected the sanctity of the individual made in God's image. To that end, Reagan quoted Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, who said that America's inalienable rights are "corollaries of the great proposition, at the heart of Western civilization, that every . . . person is a ressacra, a sacred reality, and as such is entitled to the opportunity of fulfilling those great human potentials with which God has endowed man." Similarly, Pope John Paul II said that every human being is special, precious, "a unique and unrepeatable gift of God."

This core conviction about the inherent dignity of human life, more than any other, led both John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to oppose international communism so passionately. They did not (as so many dupes during the Cold War did) see the Soviet Union as a different but still "legitimate" political entity; they viewed atheistic Soviet communism as a monstrosity, primarily because it trampled on the first and most fundamental of all human rights. No other system was such an affront to the beliefs they held sacred.

It was evil, and they would not shy away from calling it such.

Adapted excerpt from A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century by Paul Kengor. Copyright © 2017. Available from ISI Books.

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