1. January 11, 1989 — The Farewell Address
Less than a week and a half before leaving office, President Reagan delivered his Farewell Address. It was a moment that was both majestic and graceful, an ideal end to a beloved presidency. In his inimitable, folksy style, Reagan recapped his eight years in office as a “rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”
Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a plant that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger. Our economic program brought about the longest peacetime expansion in our history: real family income up, the poverty rate down, entrepreneurship booming, and an explosion in research and new technology. We’re exporting more than ever because American industry became more competitive, and at the same time, we summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad instead of erecting them at home.
Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we toasted the new peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the superpowers actually begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons–and hope for even more progress is bright–but the regional conflicts that rack the globe are also beginning to cease.
The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.
He closed his speech with a warning that sounds eerily prescient looking back at it today:
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?
…some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom–freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important… If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
In fact, just this past week, Rush Limbaugh invoked this very speech (particularly the second passage above) to point out that we as a nation have lost the vision that Ronald Reagan left us. It’s truly sad to see how far our nation has strayed from the optimism of Reagan’s day.
Here’s the speech:
Ronald Reagan created an inspiring vision for America, and for the most part he put it into action. His policies ushered in sustained economic growth and precipitated the destruction of Soviet Communism. He was extremely successful and immensely popular. For eight years, Reagan led the country with charm, wit, and unbridled optimism. He clearly left this country a better place, and it’s safe to say that there will never be another leader like him. (And isn’t it interesting that most of these defining moments centered around his speeches? He wasn’t called The Great Communicator for nothing.)
Reagan inspired me. I tend to think that, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be as interested in politics as I am today. For all the talk of different politicians being “the next Reagan,” I hope that there is someone in my generation who may come close to filling his shoes. I hope that there’s someone out there on the Right who will be as heroic to future generations as Reagan is to many of us today.
Happy Birthday, President Reagan. We sure do miss you.