Harper Collins
updated 5/27/2005 5:29:58 PM ET 2005-05-27T21:29:58

Former Ronald Reagan advisor and bestselling author Michael K. Deaver gathers the nation’s leading figures to define conservatism, explore Reagan’s impact on conservative philosophy, and examine what it means to be a conservative in America today.

In "Why I Am a Reagan Conservative," the most powerful minds in politics and media come together to provide the reasons behind their beliefs, offer personal accounts of their time in politics and government, and explain the late Ronald Reagan’s impact on the Grand Old Party. Below is an excerpt from a chapter from Bob Dole. Dole discusses a long legacy of timeless values, from the bleak 1930s to the difficult days after 9/11.

Bob Dole: "A legacy of values, not just a label"

To me “conservative” is a legacy of values that are at once timeless and vulnerable, not just a label. It is a faith; the humbling perspective that not every change represents progress; a fierce defense of individuals and national freedom; and a healthy skepticism toward institutions too large, too remote, and too impersonal to be truly democratic. Conservatives share the Founders’ fears over too much power concentrated in too few hands. We prefer organizing society from the grassroots to dictating it from the top down.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” Growing up on the edge of the Depression-era Dust Bowl, I was taught to put my trust in God, not government, and never confuse the two. I eventually came to see conservatism as a creed of opportunity, rooted in the ability of seemingly ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. The worst of times brought out the best in my neighbors. In Russell, Kansas, adversity tested character. But it also bred a sense of responsibility for others who were hurting.

In any event, when I returned from World War II, I was sustained by neighbors who were anything but stingy with their love and encouragement. I learned then, if I hadn’t already known it, that there is no such thing as a wholly selfmade man or woman. Life has taught me well that the greatness of America lies, not in the power of the government, but in the goodness of her people. That’s why genuine conservatives trust people to make their own decisions and realize their own dreams. We trust parents to choose the best education for their children. We trust entrepreneurs to generate new ideas and the jobs that follow. We entrust hard-earned dollars to the workers who earned them instead of centralized bureaucracies that limit options and frustrate dreams.

I confess that it took me years to fully understand conservatism and its many different interpretations. I was sometimes criticized as not being a “true” conservative by right-wing pundits and some one-issue special-interest groups. Being a compassionate conservative in the 1970s and 1980s was not appreciated by the right-wing ideologues, most of whom never ran for any office or cast a vote on any issue.

Of course, for a long time even genuine conservatives were the object of scorn, even ridicule from the Left ... you know, we were lampooned as little old ladies in tennis shoes worried about Communists under the bed and fluoride in our water supplies, our overstuffed tycoons in batwing collars who were unwilling to look at the new moon out of respect for the old one. Ironically it was Ronald Reagan, the oldest of American presidents, who proved the most youthful of leaders. Far from living in the past, President Reagan looked forward to a future in which all of God’s children were free, and all Americans celebrated the source of life and liberty.

Liberty, I might add, that should never be confused with license. Conservatives have no monopoly on virtue. Yet if we are true to our stated beliefs, we will take exceptions to a popular culture that all too often peddles trash for cash. Indeed, conservatives have a special responsibility, it seems to me—precisely because we embrace what President Reagan called the magic of the marketplace—to raise our voices in protest when the profit motive turns poisonous, coarsening our culture, polluting our air or airwaves.

In many ways my life traces the trajectory of American conservatism, from a marginalized faith in the bleak 1930s to triumph in the cold war to our current agenda-setting primacy. Recent tests have confirmed that the tide of events flows our way. In the days since 9/11 we have all drawn inspiration from young Americans, many in uniform far from home defending our most cherished values. You don’t hear anyone questioning the courage or character of Generation X these days. They know, just as surely as the heroes of Gettysburg or Omaha Beach, that freedom is never free. As a result, the world in 2004 is freer, more democratic, more entrepreneurial, and more hopeful than at any time in my life. That’s why I remain what I proclaimed myself to be in 1996—the most optimistic man in America.

BOB DOLE, called “the most enduring Republican leader of the twentieth century,” twice served as majority leader of the Senate. He currently serves as chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons and of the National World War II Memorial.

The foregoing is excerpted from "Why I Am a Reagan Conservative" by Michael K Deaver. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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