TCS Daily

Reagan in the Big Easy

By Nick Schulz - September 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Seventeen summers ago, my brother and I had the good fortune to stand on the floor of the Superdome in New Orleans. What is today a scene of misery, despair and hopelessness was back then a scene of joy, merriment and celebration. Ronald Reagan was giving his valedictory address at the GOP convention. We had made a pilgrimage to the Crescent City to bid him farewell.

The Big Easy -- as it has for countless others before and since -- grabbed us by the collar, smothered us with its energy, charm and verve and never let us go. I've returned to New Orleans on many occasions since then. My brother and sister-in-law were married there. It is a unique, irreplaceable American gem.

As the discussion surrounding the tragedy and horror of Hurricane Katrina descends rapidly into politically motivated finger-pointing and cynical blame-placing, it's worth remembering what the 40th President of the United States had to say about his country and his fellow citizens from within the Superdome.

The United States faces enormous challenges in the coming weeks and months to resuscitate a glorious city, recuperate from a catastrophic blow and plan for future calamities both natural and man-made. But Reagan was confident when facing a challenge, as he did when he first assumed office. As he recalled at the time:

        "Before we came to Washington, Americans had just suffered the two worst 
        back-to-back years of inflation in 60 years... Interest rates had jumped to over
        21 percent, the highest in 120 years, more than doubling the average monthly 
        mortgage payments for working families -- our families. When they sat around 
        the kitchen table, it was not to plan summer vacations, it was to plan 
        economic survival.

        "Industrial production was down, and productivity was down for 2 consecutive 
        years. The average weekly wage plunged 9 percent. The median family income 
        fell 5.5 percent.

But through pluck, hard work and removing obstacles to growth, America bounced back. Actions were taken, policies changed. "We focused on hope, not despair," Reagan said in New Orleans that summer. And what was the result?

        "Together we pulled out of a tailspin and created 17.5 million good jobs. That's
        more than a quarter of a million new jobs a month -- every month -- for 68 
        consecutive months. America is working again.

        "As for inflation, well, that too has changed. We changed it from the time
        it hit 18 percent in 1980 down to between 3.5 and 4 percent. Interest 
        rates are less than half of what they were. In fact, nearly half of all mortgages
        taken out on family homes in 1986 and more than a third of those in 1987 were
        actually old loans being refinanced at the new lower rates. Young families have
        finally been able to get some relief. These, too, were our changes.

Bolstered by the character and liveliness of the Big Easy, Dutch reminded Americans that a great nation, and a great people, can overcome any challenge. Most important of all, in Reagan's view, was the will, wisdom and wherewithal of the American people.

        "Let us remember that tribute really belongs to the 245 million citizens who
        make up the greatest -- and the first -- three words in our Constitution: 
        'We the People.' It is the American people who endured the great challenge of
        lifting us from the depths of national calamity, renewing our mighty economic
        strength, and leading the way to restoring our respect in the world. They
        are an extraordinary breed we call Americans. So, if there's any salute deserved
        tonight, it's to the heroes everywhere in this land who make up the doers, 
        the dreamers, and the lifebuilders without which our glorious experiment
        in democracy would have failed."

Toward the end of his New Orleans speech, Reagan said "I'm ready to volunteer a little advice now and then and offer a pointer or two on strategy." We could use some of his advice from that summer evening now. It would do the nation -- "an extraordinary breed we call Americans" -- well to listen to his invocation of "hope, and not despair," once again.

The author is editor of

For more coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and to learn how you can help the victims of this disaster, please visit our special section Tragedy on the Gulf Coast.


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