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Author Craig Shirley considers whether Ronald Reagan was a libertarian

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the death of President Ronald Reagan. He died on June 5, 2004, the eve of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the 20th anniversary of his speech at Normandy remembering “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.”

Ronald Reagan's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
(c) Rick Sincere 2011. All rights reserved.

Earlier this year, Craig Shirley, author of Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All and of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, came to Charlottesville to speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

In an interview that weekend with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, Shirley noted how Reagan viewed libertarianism as intrinsic to conservatism and often defined himself as a libertarian.

'Heart and soul'

Reagan, he explained, gave an interview to Reason magazine in 1975, in which “he said that libertarianism is the fundamental basis for American conservatism.”

That interview, conducted by Reason's founding editor Manuel Klausner, appeared in the magazine's July 1975 issue. In it, Reagan said that “if you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism... The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

Shirley pointed out that, “for a time, [Reagan] referred to himself publicly as a 'libertarian conservative.' I have interviews with him on CBS in which he referred to himself as a 'libertarian conservative.'”

Reagan, Shirley explained, “was not libertine but he was very much of the opinion, following Locke, Paine, and Jefferson, that [limited government] was about the individual and the privacy and the rights and the dignity of the individual. He said that many, many times in his political career.”

Anti-gay Briggs Amendment

As an example of Reagan's libertarianism, Shirley recalled the then-future president's opposition to the Briggs Amendment in California, a 1978 voter initiative that would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching in government schools.

John Briggs, he explained, was a California state senator in California. Briggs “had seen the political success that Anita Bryant had done in Dade County” with her campaign to end the local anti-discrimination ordinance that protected gay workers. “Her political star began to rise as she was taking on the gay rights movement,” he said, noting that “Briggs had higher aspirations; he wanted to run for governor of California.”

Briggs, he explained, “came up with an idea that would prohibit either those who championed a homosexual lifestyle or those who were gay and were out from being public school teachers. This deeply offended Ronald Reagan. You could say it was because of his libertarianism, or because of his upbringing, because of his mother's [influence] about allowing people to live and let live, or because of his cosmopolitan lifestyle that he was aware of during his days in Hollywood. He may have been informed by all three experiences but he was against it and he campaigned against it.”

The November 1978 referendum was defeated by a 14-point margin and afterwards, Shirley recalled, Briggs had a press conference where he “was asked by a reporter, why did it lose?”

Briggs replied: “Ronald Reagan. Reagan campaigned against it, and that was it.”

Confirmation

Shirley's recollections are confirmed in an article by James Duke Mason on June 5 in The Advocate, an LGBT magazine.

“Believe it or not,” Mason wrote, “Reagan was one of the first major politicians in history to come out for gay rights. Just a year before he announced his candidacy for president, he came out forcefully” against the Briggs Amendment.

Not only did Reagan “have no political incentive to do it, but it could’ve been a huge catastrophe. In speaking out against the initiative, Reagan used language that was way ahead of its time; he argued that 'prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.' Some dismiss his support as too last-minute to have made a difference. But as his biographer Lou Cannon once put it, Reagan knew the risks but 'chose to state his convictions.'”

Briggs himself blamed Reagan for his amendment's defeat. Could he have equally blamed Reagan's core libertarianism?