TCS Daily

'Why Shouldn't We Believe That? We Are Americans'

By James Pinkerton - January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

I have written about Ronald Reagan before, here and here, so my admiration for the 40th president is no secret. But on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his inauguration, it seems fitting to take a look back at the actual text that the Gipper delivered that day, as a way of reminding ourselves what went right, what wrong -- and what changes, still continuing to this day, he set in motion.

My comments are interpolated in red, and then I have added some additional words at the end.


Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O'Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and my fellow citizens: To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

Reagan's inaugural address totals 2,434 words. The shortest was George Washington's second address in 1793, a mere 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison's in 1841, a stupefying 8,445 words. It is interesting that this first Inaugural address by the Great Communicator had so few memorable lines in it -- no ringing phrases to compete with the Bartlett's-worthy words of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy in their inaugurals. Even some of Reagan's rhetorical favorites, such as "city on a hill," are absent from this speech.

Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic. It is fair to say that the ex-president whom Reagan was addressing, Jimmy Carter, did not always reciprocate the Gipper's graciousness. As Anatoly Dobrynin details in his memoir, Carter had been and would continue to be eager to play the "Soviet card" against Reagan -- and against America. In 1976, candidate Carter dispatched Averill Harriman to Moscow to assure the Soviet leadership that Carter would be "easier to deal with" than incumbent president Gerald Ford, evidently hoping to encourage the Russians to tilt toward the Democrats. Similarly in 1980, Carter delegated Armand Hammer to deliver a similar message: It would be better for the USSR if Carter were re-elected -- so couldn't Moscow give Carter a political hand, by, say, increasing Jewish emigration to Israel? And in 1984, Carter himself visited Dobrynin to tell the Soviets that they would be better off if Mondale won the election. There's a word for the sort of activity that Carter seemed to be sidling up to. It starts with a "t."

The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people. That's for sure. Those who are curious about how bleak things were back then might wish to Netflix the comedy movie "Americathon," released in 1979, which imagined an American president going on TV to raise money to keep a bankrupted country from being repossessed by Native Americans.

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, causing human misery and personal indignity. The "misery index," cited by Carter in his '76 campaign against Republican Jerry Ford, was in turn cited by the Reaganites in 1980, and with great effect -- because the data were so damning. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.

But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. One lesson of the last quarter-century is that it's a lot easier to cut taxes than it is to cut spending. Federal spending for fiscal year 1981 totaled $678 billion. After eight years of Reagan's alleged "heartless budget slashing," it had nevertheless jumped to 1.143 trillion. And for the coming year, fiscal '07, federal spending is expected to total almost $2.6 trillion. Fortunately, economic growth, inspired in large measure by Reagan's tax cuts, has kept pace, or nearly so, thus keeping such spending manageable, if not desirable.

You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation? Well, yes and no. Since 1960, the federal government has run a surplus in just six fiscal years. And none of those surpluses occurred in the Reagan 80s. The lesson seems to be that while eliminating the deficit is of course desirable, other economic outcomes, such as rapid growth, are yet more desirable.

We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding -- we are going to begin to act, beginning today.

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. The Gipper was certainly right about that. When he took office, employment was less than 90 million; today, it's 135 million. Gross domestic product, adjusting for inflation, has more than doubled. And the stock market and home values, the twin engines of middle-class nest-egg accumulation, have multiplied. In material terms, for Americans, life has never been better.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Leftist critics of Reagan love to quote this sentence, but only after eliminating the first four words. Similarly, libertarians like to pretend that Reagan only said, without, modification, "government is not the solution." But in fact, Reagan was no enemy of government in all situations; he devoted a great deal of energy toward improving public education and job training.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.

We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick--professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, "We the people," this breed called Americans. Here Reagan is echoing Richard Nixon's "silent majority" speech of November 3, 1969. It was not common for Republicans to invoke "the people" during much of the 20th century, for one simple reason: Everyone knew that most Americans were Democrats. But beginning in the 60s, as the Democratic Party moved left, it became easier and more natural for Republicans to invoke "the people." And harder for the Democrats to pretend that they still represented "the people."

Well, this administration's objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Here Reagan, who had come to national prominence by his highly visible campaigning on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964, was nonetheless putting distance between himself and one element of the Goldwater legacy -- Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act. At the same time, Reagan clearly signaled an impatience with racial quotas, although the slow peelback of the quota-mentality has consumed many years in a protracted farrago of litigating and politicking. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. Inflation fell from 10.3 percent in 1981 to as low as 1.9 during RR's time in the White House. And Reagan's great legacy includes his 1987 appointment of Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve. All must share in the productive work of this "new beginning" and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.

So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government -- not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government. The Constitution-based vision of "state's rights" was in deep retreat in 1981. But Reagan himself led a comeback; the ex-California governor emphasized federalist principles at every opportunity, and while it was sometimes hard to see the impact of the Gipper's effort, the wheels of an intellectual counter-revolution were, in fact, set in motion. The Federalist Society was established in 1982, William Rehnquist was named Chief Justice in 1986, and Antonin Scalia was named to the Court that same year. And while Reagan was defeated in his effort to place Robert Bork on the Court in the following year, by the late 80s, a full-blown renaissance of conservative legal thinking had begun. The flowers of which continue to bloom to this day, in the form of such legal blossoms as John Roberts and Sam Alito.

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe, loomed to an inevitable decline. "The era of limits" and "the limits to growth" were popular phrases in the 70s -- but such words were never a part of Reagan's vocabulary. I do not believe in a fate that will all on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew; our faith and our hope.

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don't know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter -- and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. Growing up in the 70s, I can attest that the dominant culture back then was oblivious to entrepreneurship. To the extent that people regarded capitalism as legitimate, they thought of capitalism as big business. The notion of the entrepreneur who could change the world -- and make everyone around him better off in the process -- was generally dismissed. Except to a few, such as RR. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. As Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, said in his 1988 acceptance speech at the New Orleans GOP convention, "I hear the quiet people others don't. The ones who raise the family, pay the taxes, meet the mortgage. And I hear them and I am moved, and their concerns are mine." And their works, Bush continued, "Are spread out like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky." These lines for Bush came from Reagan's greatest speechwriter, Peggy Noonan. Their values sustain our national life.

I have used the words "they" and "their" in speaking of these heroes. I could say "you" and "your" because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak -- you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.

We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick, and provide opportunities to make them self- sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?

Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic "yes." To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I have just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world's strongest economy. This was a strange rhetorical choice for Reagan to make. RR was referring to Churchill's famous line that he did not become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. But in fact, that's exactly what happened. The Empire was badly weakened during the course of World War Two, despite Churchill's best efforts. And then, of course, Churchill was defeated for re-election as PM in 1945. During his absence from 10 Downing Street, India became independent. But when Churchill returned to power in 1951 for a four-year period, he was equally helpless to prevent the further unraveling of the Empire. Hardly an auspicious precedent for Reagan to reach for, even if no harm seems to have come from it.

In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. The new President moved immediately to eliminate the lingeringly disastrous price-controls that had hobbled the economy -- particularly the energy sector -- for most of the previous decade. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government. True to his word, Reagan proposed a "New Federalism" initiative in his1982 State of the Union address; and while little happened right away, the welfare-reform success of Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, beginning in 1987, was the direct result of the greater leeway afforded to the states by the Reagan era. And by 1996, that same model of state-led reform had spread to the entire nation. Progress may be slow -- measured in inches and feet, not miles -- but we will progress. Always the optimist. Is it time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.

On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, "Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of.... On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."

Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children and our children's children.

And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom. Here Reagan seems to be echoing the words of John Quincy Adams, back in 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be." But Adams then went on to argue that America should be involved in actively fighting for others' freedom: "But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." In 1981, Reagan might have been preoccupied with domestic policy, but of course, as events unfolded during the eight years of his presidency, the US took on a much more ambitious role around the world.

To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for or own sovereignty is not for sale.

As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it -- now or ever.

It is noteworthy that Reagan's foreign policy discussion consists of just five paragraphs, totaling 266 words. And while RR does mention "terrorism," he does not address any specific country -- not even the Soviet Union or Iran. Which, as it happened, chose January 20, 1981, to be the day in which it released the 52 hostages held in Tehran for 444 days. Or Afghanistan, where the new president would accelerate efforts to beat back the Soviets. Or El Salvador and Nicaragua, two other places where the yet-to-be-enunciated Reagan Doctrine was applied.

Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors. The issue of terrorism, and violence in the Middle East, has preoccupied Americans for the past quarter-century. And in this particular area, the Bush administration has been sharply critical of its predecessors, including, by implication, the Reagan administration. As President George W. Bush said in London on November 19, 2003, "We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold." And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it even more crisply in Cairo on June 20, 2005: "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither."

I am told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I am deeply grateful. It's worth remembering that the mass entry of evangelical and fundamentalist white Protestants, mostly in the South -- the folks most likely to hold prayer meetings -- into mainstream American politics as a self-conscious force, came in 1976, with the presidential campaign of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Yet in just four years, the bulk of those evangelicals had shifted their allegiance from Carter to Reagan. And the Republicans have increased their grip on born-again loyalty ever since, in part because of rhetorical gestures such as the preceding. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer. This particular idea has not taken off, although there is surely much more prayerful politicking in America today than a quarter-century ago.

This is the first time in history that this ceremony has been held, as you have 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 monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row on 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 one of those markers is a monument to the kinds 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. Few presidents have matched Reagan's ability to sing the praises of American heroes and their heroism. The "boys of Pont-du-Hoc" speech at Normandy, which set the standard for future presidential commemorations, was less than four years ahead.

Under one such 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 artillery 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." This illustrative "anecdotalization" of great events and great themes would become a Reagan trademark, repeated at all his State of the Union addresses; other presidents have maintained the tradition.

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. God bless you, and thank you.


When Reagan left office in 1989, he certainly had his fans, but few outside of the Republican Party were prepared to accord him "great" status. That verdict began to change soon, however, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. All of a sudden, Reagan's 1987 words at the Brandenburg Gate in still-divided Berlin -- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" -- made the ex-president look prescient, not senescent, as many had jibed at the time.

From the vantage point of 25 years, the Reagan record looks like a great success. One indicator is a new book by Richard Reeves, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, which is notably for its admiration of the 40th president. But wait a second -- isn't the well-regarded Reeves also a well-known liberal? Well, at least he was. In the book-reviewing words of Jon Meacham, a top editor at Newsweek -- a magazine that was notable for its anti-Reaganism back in the 80s -- Reeves' book is, in fact, a watershed:

"President Reagan marks a surrender of sorts. The establishment has, for the moment at least, given in and decided that Reagan was a great historical figure after all. That Reeves arrived at such a conclusion is particularly notable. Twenty years ago, in 1985, he published The Reagan Detour, arguing that 'the Reagan years would be a detour, necessary if sometimes nasty, in the long progression of American liberal democracy.'"

But of course, history is ever-unfolding, and so the judgment of capital-h "History" is yet to be delivered -- in fact, will never be fully delivered, because judgments are always subject to change, in light of new events and new perspectives.

Indeed, a historical verdict is often a function of when the historian slaps on "the end" sign. A biography of Napoleon that comes to an end after the Battle of Austerlitz reads a lot differently from a biography that carries us through to the moment that the Frenchman met his Waterloo a decade later. Similarly, a larger book entitled "France's Rise to Greatness" would have to end in the early 19th century.

And so only time will tell where America stands in another 25 years, or 50 years.

It is noteworthy, for example, that the incumbent President Bush openly models himself after Reagan, not his own father. And in terms of economic policy, W. has been wise to do so. In terms of personal style, "Westerner" plays better than "Preppy." But at the same time, the younger Bush seems determined to revise much of Reagan's foreign policy legacy. Although Reagan spoke in a sometimes apocalyptic language -- "evil empire" -- he proved to be cautious about the actual use of force against evil-doers. Bush, of course, has few such compunctions. And so, for example, after the 1983 truck-bombing of the Marines in Beirut, Reagan soon withdrew US forces. This decision, highly popular at the time, is now criticized by Bush & Co. as a doleful landmark in the "decades of failed policy in the Middle East." So Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in an effort to reverse the course that Reagan helped chart. Was Bush's the wiser course?

Whereas Reagan believed that the ideas of freedom and democracy would change the world through the power of example -- as he said in his first inaugural, "we will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom" -- Bush has a much more aggressive vision, at least as applied to the Middle East. And so the title of a new and adulatory book about Bush by Fred Barnes is revealing: Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America.

Is that what Americans want? Do Americans yearn for a supplanting of the Reagan Doctrine (help countries win their freedom) by the Bush Doctrine (invade countries to give them their freedom)? Indeed, old Reaganites wonder: Is Bush piloting a successful new course for American diplomacy, or is he, in effect, "dropping the pilot", jettisoning key elements of the most successful foreign-policy president in decades?

The answer to that question will help determine not only the future of the country, but also the future direction of the Reagan legacy. Because without RR, it's safe to bet there never would have been a W.


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