Reagan’s hopeful farewell
Thirty years ago, at 9 p.m. Eastern on the winter Wednesday of Jan. 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan, one month shy of his 78th birthday, sat down to deliver his 34th and final Oval Office speech to the American people.
At the time, the remarks were noted for their characteristic grace. Reagan had, after all, catapulted to political fame a quarter century before, in 1964, with a memorable television address on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, known in conserva- tive circles as simply “The Speech.” This farewell address was seen as little more than a quiet closing note to a long and largely popular presidency.
History, though, has a wonderful way of changing how we view things. In real time, people and events that are dismissed or derided can come to look better, and loom larger, in retrospect.
The statures of Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush have grown since they left the White House. The sophisticated term for this phenomenon is revisionism, but it can also be understood as common-sensical, since we should know snap judgments are not always the right judg- ments. Humility, too, ought to teach us that there’s always more to learn.
In that spirit, given the remarks delivered from the same office this week by the 45th president, and particularly in light of Trump’s persistent anti-immigration posture and policies, the Reagan farewell address deserves reconsideration and merits elevation, I believe, to the ranks of the closing words of George Washington, who warned against “entangling alliances” and the destructive “spirit of party,” and of Dwight Eisenhower, who advised Americans to beware of the “military-industrial complex.”
Reagan’s speech is modest, determinedly so. “I’ve had my share of victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn’t win for me,” he said. “They never saw my troops; they never saw Reagan’s Regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action.” No “I alone can fix it” for the Gipper.
The words – composed by the speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who consulted closely with Reagan in those closing weeks of his reign – are as different in spirit and in substance from President Trump’s as words could be and still be rendered in the same tongue.
Invoking the Puritan John Winthrop, who in 1630 drew on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when speaking of America as a “city upon a hill,” Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it.” It was a free, proud city, built on a strong foundation, full of commerce and creativity, he said, adding, “If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
That’s manifestly not how Trump sees it. From his announcement-speech allusion to “rapists” coming in from Mexico to his lament about “American car- nage” to his manufacturing of a “crisis” at the border that requires a wall, the 45th president speaks in the vernacular of darkness, not light; of exclusion, not inclusion.
And whatever his faults – and he had many – Ronald Reagan believed in the possibilities of a country that was forever reinventing itself. He knew, too, that the nation had grown stronger the more widely it had opened its arms and the more generously it had interpreted Thomas Jefferson’s assertion of equality in the Declaration of Independence.
He was about hope, not fear.
Jon Meacham, a historian, is the author, most recently, of “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”