Ashcroft reflects on Reagan, dedication to promotion of democracy

Photo by Stephanie Backus.

Two decades after it was placed on the Westminster College campus, Edwina Sandys’ “Breakthrough” sculpture continues to serve as a centerpiece for discussion on freedom and democracy.

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In town Tuesday for the 20th anniversary of the dedication of Winston Churchill’s granddaughter’s reworking of one of the most famous symbols of the Cold War into a symbol of liberty — the sculpture is comprised of panels from the Berlin Wall — former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft took the opportunity to expound on former President Ronald Reagan’s dedication to the principles of liberty and democracy, and how that dedication helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union.

“This is the Thanksgiving season, and I’m grateful for ... the kindness of this invitation today to be here for the anniversary of a solemn and joyful day, celebrating a step forward to freedom felt around the globe,” Ashcroft said, noting Westminster has a tradition of witnessing great moments. “More important than a celebration of the sculpture is the events this sculpture celebrates.”

Ashcroft — who, as governor of Missouri, was present 20 years ago — noted that during the dedication of “Breakthrough,” he recalled Reagan’s famous directive to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

“My words seemed small,” Ashcroft said as he referenced a portion of his speech that day. “‘Not since Jericho have shouted words alone been enough to break down a wall.’”

The former Missouri governor said he wanted to reflect on some of the principles from Reagan’s address which “I believe are important today.”

The first of these principles, Ashcroft said, was “a profound commitment to America as a special place.”

“He put it this way: ‘And now let me speak directly to the young people and students. I wonder if you’ve yet appreciated how unusual this country of ours is,’” Ashcroft quoted. “‘I can’t help but feel that there was some divine plan that placed this continent here between the two great oceans to be found by people from any corner of the earth — people who had an extra ounce of desire for freedom.’

“I love that phrase, ‘an extra ounce of desire for freedom.’ He understood the exceptionality of America.”

He also referenced Emma Lazarus’ famous poem at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, particularly the line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The second principle cited by Ashcroft was “America and its commitment to liberty and human rights and justice, and that it should be celebrated.”

“We have committed ourselves to the defense of liberty,” he said, again going on to cite Reagan’s 1990 speech and his statements that America should not back off its assertion of national interests, and the promotion and defense of liberty and democracy.

“His denial of willingness to back down from excellence is what we celebrate today,” Ashcroft said. “That leadership made a difference then, it can make a difference now.”

He recalled how Reagan cited a letter sent to Churchill by his daughter at the conclusion of World War II in which she said she owed her father what “every English man, woman and child owes you: Liberty itself.”

“The people on the east side of the (Berlin) Wall owe that to Ronald Reagan because he acted on his understanding that America doesn’t have to apologize for its dedication to freedom,” Ashcroft said. “I believe because of that dedication to principle, those hundreds of millions of people owe their freedom to Ronald Reagan.”

He said that commitment to leading from strength and dedication to liberty is the responsibility of all Americans.

“It is the job of every American to carry forward our legacy left to us, a legacy of freedom,” Ashcroft said before referencing a scouting motto of leaving a place better than one finds it. “Ronald Reagan had a vision for our future; he believed we could leave the campground better than we found it.

“I think all of us here today can rededicate ourselves to the proposition of liberty and justice for all.”

Rob Havers, executive director of the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library made the closing remarks, which included a similar message from Sandys, in which she cited Reagan’s words of 20 years ago: “In dedicating this magnificent sculpture, may we dedicate ourselves to ... a world without walls. That would be the greatest empire of all.”

“What better metaphor can there be for the Iron Curtain than the Berlin Wall? Once that wall fell, what better way to be able to break down those barriers than the ability to walk through that wall that cost so many lives in the pursuit of freedom?” Havers concluded. “(‘Breakthrough’) is a symbol that serves as a reminder to all who love freedom and those who yearn for freedom that the peace we wish for all mankind still must be attained, and we of this generation bear a responsibility to carry that torch of liberty for future generations to come.”

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