June 06, 2004


When I was 17 or so, I was ranting about some piece of US foreign policy when my father looked at me with level eyes and said, “Buddy, if you’re not a liberal when you’re 18 you got no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you're 28 you got no brain.”

Reagan was president then, and I was not a big fan. Now that I’m well into my mid-30s (“middle aged,” my wife says), I’ve come to appreciate and admire Reagan. He was the essential optimist at a time in which America desperately needed optimism. At a time when Jimmy Carter was telling us we should be confident, Reagan gave us reasons to be confident, and led the way through his own confidence and optimism. Many presidents have spoken of the shining city on the hill; Reagan truly believed in it.

I’ve also come to admire Reagan for his fundamental belief in the power of rhetoric … rhetoric in the classical sense, not the current and bastardized sense of double talk by evasive politicians. Reagan understood and respected the power of his words, and he understood better than anyone since FDR (yes, better than Kennedy) the power of presidential discourse in making great things possible.

Reagan has six speeches listed in American Rhetoric’s list of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century (the list was complied by two professors of Rhetoric and Communication, who asked 137 leading scholars of American public address to recommend speeches on the basis of social and political impact, and rhetorical artistry):

Only FDR and JFK have as many on the list. Some people, though, try to taint Reagan’s oratory as less substantive than some of his predecessors. These people remember him as the Actor President, noting with a curled lip that Reagan was all sizzle and no steak. But they forget that his most noted speeches were policy speeches wrapped in soaring oratory, and not soaring oratory alone.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The Time for Choosing speech, a campaign address in support of Barry Goldwater during the 1964 campaign, is actually in speech in which Reagan outlines what would become the Republican agenda 20 years later: the importance of small government over large, of empowering individuals to pursue their own interests, and of preserving America as “the last best hope for man on Earth” through winning the Cold War. He said that day:

You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin—just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain. Where, then, is the road to peace? Well, it's a simple answer after all.

You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, “There is a price we will not pay.” There is a point beyond which they must not advance. This is the meaning in the phrase of Barry Goldwater's “peace through strength.” Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

The “Putting America Back to Work” speech is remembered first as an eloquent and vital inaugural address, but in it Reagan declared his intentions to reduce the size of the federal government, return power to the states, reduce taxes, strengthen the country’s ties with its allies, and act with force in the world if required. This speech also closes with these lines, some of the greatest presidential rhetoric ever spoken:

This is the first time in our history that this ceremony has been held, as you’ve been told, on this West Front of the Capitol.

Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city’s special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man. George Washington, father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then beyond the Reflecting Pool, the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Beyond those moments, monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row upon row of simple white markers bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.

Each on of those markers is a monument to the kind of hero I spoke of earlier. Their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam. Under such a marker lies a young man, Martin Treptow, who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division.

There, on the Western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy fire.

We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words: “America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle
depended on me alone.”

The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.

Compare those words to these from Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech …

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path — the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.

The answer to America’s crisis of confidence is … energy policy? Compare these two speeches and the difference between telling Americans to be confident and giving them a reason for confidence should be clear.

I vividly remember the Evil Empire speech, and in particular I remember thinking “this maniac is trying to get us all killed.” But what Reagan was doing in this speech before evangelical Christians was sending a message to the Soviets that the policy of the United States would not be one of a nuclear freeze … that to do so would reward the USSR for its military buildup. Reagan knew the Soviets supported a freeze because it would freeze their military advantage, and more important, would free their economy from an arms race they could not afford. In this speech he was letting the Soviets know he knew, and that he wasn’t going to fall for it.

We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. And we will never stop searching for a genuine peace. But we can assure none of these things America stands for through the so-called nuclear freeze solutions proposed by some.

The truth is that a freeze now would be a very dangerous fraud, for that is merely the illusion of peace. The reality is that we must find peace through strength.

I would agree to a freeze if only we could freeze the Soviets' global desires. A freeze at current levels of weapons would remove any incentive for the Soviets to negotiate seriously in Geneva and virtually end our chances to achieve the major arms reductions which we have proposed. Instead, they would achieve their objectives through the freeze.

A freeze would reward the Soviet Union for its enormous and unparalleled military buildup. It would prevent the essential and long overdue modernization of United States and allied defenses and would leave our aging forces increasingly vulnerable. And an honest freeze would require extensive prior negotiations on the systems and numbers to be limited and on the measures to ensure effective verification and compliance. And the kind of a freeze that has been suggested would be virtually impossible to verify. Such a major effort would divert us completely from our current negotiations on achieving substantial reductions.

He was also letting his allies and enemies know the gravity he attached to the Cold War: that he saw it not simply as an imperial arms race, but as a battle of philosophy regarding the freedom and potential of man. He was saying to his peers worldwide: “Liberty=Good, Totalitarianism=Bad, and I’m never going to forget it, so don’t ever expect me to let up on the pressure.”

The “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech, which Reagan gave 20 years ago today at the 40th D-Day anniversary in 1984, is one of his most eloquent. But this too was a policy speech. After showering appropriate praise upon the Rangers who climbed those cliffs 60 years ago, Reagan let the USSR and western Europe know that the policy of the United States would be to welcome improved relations with the Soviets, but that they must first change their ways. As he said then:

It's fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

It was then that he articulated the second point of policy: than until that change came, the US would actively strengthen the NATO alliance.

The “Space Shuttle Challenger” address was poetry, not policy, but it demonstrated the power of the president to salve our wounds during times of national grief … perhaps the most eloquent such example since Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Even here, though, he offered vision and outlined our direction as a nation:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's take-off. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute.

We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

Finally, the “Tear Down This Wall” speech, delivered in 1987. This speech represents the third element of what, along with the Evil Empire and Pointe du Hoc speeches, became a triumvirate of Cold War policy addresses by Reagan. That day he said:

We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace , if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

In Europe, only one nation and those it controls refuse to join the community of freedom. Yet, in this age of redoubled economic growth, of information and innovation, the Soviet Union faces a choice: It must make fundamental changes, or it will become obsolete. Today thus represents a moment of hope. We in the West stand ready to cooperate with the East to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a safer, freer world.

In this speech he completes his Cold War storyline: from we believe totalitarianism is evil and a threat we’re not afraid to fight (Evil Empire) to we’ll welcome you into the fold but you have to give up the fight (Pointe du Hoc) to the conclusion—now is the time; join us in creating a better world for people everywhere, and use Berlin as a symbol of your good intentions. And we now know that the storyline he offered is precisely, and not coincidentally, how history eventually unfolded: from standoff to cautious engagement to reconciliation and partnership.

Ronald Reagan believed words were important … that they meant something and should always be taken seriously. He believed that presidential discourse was more than political discourse, it was a means of getting things done: of shaping America, of articulating vision and charting direction, and of pressurizing the social and political system to achieve grand outcomes.

He knew that once a president of the United States says something, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Rather than fear that finality, he used his oratory with courage and conviction, making declarations that gave us reason to feel better about being Americans, that initiated paths of policy that led toward outcomes he desired, and that ultimately led us closer to that shining city on the hill.

In 1995, Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to the American people announcing he had contracted Alzheimer’s disease:

My fellow Americans, I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.

So now we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Thank you, my friends.

Though never spoken, this text was the ultimate entry in Reagan's oral history. And even in the end … indeed, in his very last line of public address … he reminded us of his confidence in us and our future. Here’s hoping he rests in peace and sunshine.

Posted by Avocare at June 6, 2004 11:52 AM | TrackBack

Beautifully stated, Bud. I hope that a lot of people have a chance to read it. TV showed a woman in California with tears running down her cheeks saying that America needed Reagan now. Certainly, our country could benefit from his qualities of honesty and vision.

Posted by: real alan at June 8, 2004 10:02 AM

Wonderfully said. Reagan certainly reminded us through his own steadfast beliefs and values that the United States is a unique and wonderful country to call our own. Whether we agreed with his policies or not, he engaged us with his words, his love of this country and its citizens, and invited us to believe in ourselves again.

You may enjoy reading this article from The Atlantic Monthly in 1987: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/polibig/schnnew.htm

Posted by: kt at June 11, 2004 07:32 AM

You americans sure love your dead presidents! I enjoyed your analysis of Regan's oratory, but I think it's important to avoid mythologizing political leaders and fear that your reverence for his skill comes close to doing so.

I can see why you (americans) mythologize Regan: he *was* a great rhetorician. But this only highlights his role as head of state. He had speech writers, like every president does! It *was* his skill as an actor that made him outstanding. You loved him because he represented a strong father figure. That's why that woman in California was crying! Because your country is currently lacking a leader with such stature.

I also have to take issue with your tacit approval of Regan's policies. Despite all the current punditry, Regan's administration will not go down in history as particularly important, just more of the same: increased military spending, increased national debt, increased social inequity. "Trickle-down" economics have been discredited. "Safety through strength" has been discredited (witness 9-11). Even credit for the fall of the "evil empire" doesn't lie with Regan's watch --the Soviet Union simply collapsed under it own weight.

Don't get me wrong. It's obvious that Regan was a nice man, a warm man, and even a conscientious man, and my condolances go to his family for their loss. But if we could somehow restore him to his former vigor and re-elect him as president, he would fare no better steering your country through its current time of crisis than your current president... Well, maybe a little better :-)

I don't mean to be inflammatory. I just wanted to offer you all a perspective from outside your country. America is no longer viewed as the land of opportunity. People are aware of your astronomical murder rates. You have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the industrialized world. Ditto for teen pregnancy. Ditto for infant mortality. I'm not sure exactly where you fall on voter turn-out stats, but I know it's near the bottom of the list. Many would say that this slide from prosperity into inequity began with death of JFK. I think it started sometime afterwards. In any case, I believe history will show it was accelerated during the Regan years.

Sorry to be such a downer and rain on your ceremonial parade.

P.S. I'm 42 ;-)

Posted by: james at June 11, 2004 10:44 PM

Oops! Reagan. Reagan. Reagan. Sincere apologies for the misspelling!

Posted by: james at June 11, 2004 10:49 PM

got no brain. one of the great things about America is that a mediocre actor can be remembered as a good president by putting excellent people in place and saying his lines well. the smartest thing Reagan ever did was not try to think for himself.

Posted by: j at June 20, 2004 12:57 AM
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