Rea­gan’s hope­ful farewell

The Beaufort Gazette - - Opinion - BY JON MEACHAM

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.”

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