A Brief Shining Moment in the Sorry '70s

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Let’s face it­—the 1970s was a wretched, awful, depressing decade. There was some rock music at the beginning of the decade, and for some, plenty of gratuitous sex for the whole 10 years. Still, few reminisce fondly about the “Me Decade.”

The 1970s were exceeded only by the 1930s as far as miserable. To recount, there was disco, inflation, high interest rates, gas lines, Spiro Agnew’s resignation, Richard Nixon’s resignation, John Travolta, the fall of South Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, pet rocks, polyester leisure suits, and awful cars coming out of Detroit. My personal “favorite” was the Matador, one of the ugliest automobiles ever designed, inflicted on an unsuspecting public by American Motors.

For inspiration, some of us looked overseas. Many Americans were euphoric when Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was released from the Soviet Gulag he had exposed to the world and was exiled to the United States. Not everyone rose to the occasion, however. Acting on the advice of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Gerald R. Ford chose to snub Solzhenitsyn 

But he was not snubbed by two members of the U.S. Senate. Or by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Conservatives for years have loved taking pot shots at Vice President Joe Biden for everything from his gaffes and hyperbole to his impulse to always be hugging people.

At times in his career, Biden has been overly partisan. It goes with the territory, I suppose. Many of my fellow conservatives hold a grudge against Biden for his unseemly berating of Reagan’s nominee for the Department of the Interior, Bill Clark, over some obscure issues in the early 1980s. It was not a particularly high moment for Biden, as he was photographed appearing in a red-faced rage. But as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the difficult confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Biden at times seemed to be one of the few people in Washington trying to be fair to all concerned.

More than a decade earlier, Joe Biden had a truly great moment in history, and he teamed up with North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms to make it happen.

On his best day, the arch-conservative Helms was more controversial and polarizing than the liberal Biden. Yet, they shared a number of things, including tender hearts. Biden, for a time, didn’t like Helms, until he discovered Helms and his wife had adopted a teenage boy who did not have the use of his legs. Biden was grieving over the tragic death of his wife and daughter. To his everlasting credit, he commuted home to Delaware each evening, to be there for his two young sons, Beau and Hunter.

In July of 1975, Solzhenitsyn was evicted from the Soviet Union. He had too much sunlight on him to simply execute. He was already world famous for writing “The Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and for having been sentenced to years in a forced labor camp for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a private letter.

Ford was urged by Jesse Helms to meet with the Russian exile, who had settled in Vermont. Kissinger persuaded him that doing so would alienate the Kremlin. The White House issued various excuses, including the bizarre statement that he did not meet with “private personages.”

Ronald Reagan pointed out in his regular newspaper column that Ford had recently met with soccer star Pele and with the Strawberry Queen of West Virginia and the Cotton Maid.

Ultimately, Ford administration officials said the real reason the president would not meet with the Russian dissident was that it would violate the “spirit of détente.”

So Solzhenitsyn was welcomed officially to America in a bipartisan Senate reception hosted by Sens. Helms and Biden—and, unofficially, by Ronald Reagan in columns and radio commentaries. Reagan began quoting Solzhenitsyn too, revealing his dismay that the Leader of the Free World would knuckle under to Soviet tyranny.

A short time after, Reagan and aide Mike Deaver were on a commercial flight. Many Republicans were clamoring for Reagan to challenge Ford in the primaries, but Reagan was noncommittal. A woman boarded the plane, saw Reagan, embraced him, and said, “Oh governor, you’ve just got to run!”

Moments later, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, “Well, I guess I’d better do it.”

Reagan had been thinking of running for president for a long time by 1975, but anger over Ford’s treatment of Solzhenitsyn helped seal the deal, propelling him into the 1976 primaries. In so doing, he changed future history. Liberals today are fond of saying that they are on the “right side of history” when it comes to one issue or another. Well, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms were on the right side of history when it really mattered. Joe Biden, too.

After Reagan died in 2004, Biden issued a very gracious statement. When Helms died, Vice President Biden went to North Carolina to kindly attend his funeral. They were bound together and forever in an important instance in time. It was not easy. Most of official Washington agreed with Ford and Kissinger and disagreed with Helms, Biden and Reagan.

It took courage for these three men to go against their president and go against conventional thinking and stand up for what they thought was right. For Reagan, Helms and Biden, it was a brief, shining and courageous moment.

Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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