ONCE in a great while, a seemingly divinely appointed figure comes to personify the noblest human values such as faith, freedom, goodness, and principled courage.
Even more rarely, such a figure emerges as a highly influential world leader, and is thus able to greatly advance the causes of liberty, prosperity, and human dignity throughout the world.
Though several such figures emerged during the 20th century, it long appeared that foremost among this pantheon of inspiring individuals would always be the storied British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
He who embodied the courageous resolve to stand up to the gravest threat civilized society had ever known. Most of Europe had fallen and was trembling in fear at the menacing specter of Hitler's Germany, an unbridled evil that threatened to engulf humanity and cast it into an abyss that could only have been described as hell on earth. The prospect looming at the time seemed all too real.
But against this chilling backdrop, there stood Churchill, defiantly issuing exhortations that steeled his country - and the world - to resist, and ultimately defeat the raging barbarians.
It seems abundantly clear that without the steadfast leadership of Churchill, the scourge of Nazism may not have been extinguished. This deservedly places him at the very summit of posterity's heroes.
Ironically, Churchill was also among the first to call attention to the next major threat facing the free world - the spread of Soviet-style Communism. In fact, it was he who coined the phrase "Iron Curtain" in his 1946 speech in Fulton, Mo. This is, of course, the term that long epitomized the subjection of Russia, Eastern Europe, and much of Asia to totalitarian enslavement.
Though Churchill did not live to see this latest dragon slain, it was perhaps providential that another such figure soon appeared. One who, undaunted by the enormity of the stakes (for the first time, the entire world was susceptible to nuclear annihilation), was also willing to stand up to tyranny despite vociferous opposition not only by his adversaries abroad, but by his political detractors at home.
That man, of course, was Ronald Reagan.
It is patently obvious that a traditional politician, more concerned with electoral viability than doing the right thing, would have succumbed to such intense pressure to back down from this ominous confrontation with an intractable and seemingly invincible foe.
But Mr. Reagan was guided not by political calculation but by a deep belief that human beings should be free, unshackled by tyranny and repression. Because of this conviction, as much an indication of his compassion for those burdened by the yoke of communism as his vital concern for America's national security, Mr. Reagan was willing to stay the course in the face of all obstacles.
But beyond that, he had the prescience, unlike many other highly respected world statesmen, to realize that the Soviet Union could not economically sustain an arms race against a determined and resolute United States, and that it would eventually crumble if faced with sufficient external pressure.
History testifies that he was right and as a result, the Cold War was won without the fateful clash ever occurring, and untold millions are now living in freedom undreamed of even 20 years ago, when Mr. Reagan won his second term in office.
Despite his achievements, there are still some who persist in the belief that he was merely lucky to have been in office when the Soviet Union neared collapse, contending that such an occurrence was inevitable, regardless of who the American president was.
Perhaps such thinking is based on the notion that Mr. Reagan wasn't very smart, that everything he did was "scripted," and that he could not possibly have possessed the intellectual capacity to perceive the Soviet weakness when so many other and presumably better minds did not.
These suppositions are easily disproved by even a passing acquaintance with works such as "Reagan in His Own Hand," which classically demonstrate that he not only understood the Soviet Union's inherent vulnerability (even years before he became President), but that he had a remarkably fertile and perceptive mind.
Naturally, Mr. Reagan, like Churchill, was a controversial figure domestically as well. Debates still rage over the effects of his economic policies that combined tax cuts with an aggressive defense build-up (with the massive deficits they entailed), and the Iran-contra incident that dogged his second term.
But even here, a compelling case can be made on Mr. Reagan's behalf. Regarding the deficit, it appears that this was just one more area where he exhibited greater foresight than his contemporaries.
While the defense build-up was obviously necessary to prevail in the Cold War, it was precisely the so-called "peace dividend" the defense build-up made possible that played a major role (along with the tax cuts that helped launch the longest period of economic prosperity in the nation's history) in allowing the budget to be balanced by the 1990s.
So in a very real sense, Mr. Reagan did succeed in balancing the budget - after he left office. Even then, he was still confounding his critics.
With Iran-contra, it is clear that even though mistakes were undoubtedly made, the primary factor motivating Mr. Reagan was not political gain, or concealing misdeeds. Rather, it was his deep desire to aid Americans cruelly held captive abroad, and the valiant forces fighting for freedom in Nicaragua, freedom that was attained when the Nicaraguan people were finally allowed to choose their own destiny.
Even Mr. Reagan's purported failings reveal an essentially good and decent man, striving to accomplish important goals he saw as right.
Fortunately, by now even many of Mr. Reagan's most implacable political foes have come to acknowledge that he did orchestrate the Cold War triumph, and thereby secured a place alongside Winston Churchill as a genuine hero - not just in America but the world. This is indeed his legacy.
Greg Franke is a radio news journalist, free lance writer, and communications director for the Bush/Cheney campaign in Wood County.