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Reagan’s Farewell Address at 25

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The main point in Reagan’s farewell address, a quarter-century ago today, remains relevant to the current dominant debate: expanding government control of the economy is not the way to advance equality.

It was sobering to have a student come up to me after class recently and ask, “So, when was Reagan elected president again?” As firsthand memory of Reagan recedes further into the rearview mirror and a new generation with no direct memory of him reaches adulthood, Reagan’s shadow continues to lengthen, especially for conservatives and his would-be Republican successors on the presidential stage.

Just about every Republican today likes to claim to be a “Reagan Republican,” which is ironic since so many Republicans—including some leading conservatives—thought he’d be a disaster when he was elected in 1980. Too often the homage paid to Reagan is superficial, resting on paeans to his “optimism” or his economic philosophy. (Teen acne a problem? Cut taxes!) Reagan’s policy philosophy is important, but only begins to grasp the depth and full sweep of Reagan’s artistry. His method deserves closer study, and perhaps there is no better short course than a review of his last major speech as president, his Oval Office farewell address given 25 years ago this weekend.

Presidential farewell addresses have become a staple of the modern presidency, and with one or two exceptions they tend to be forgotten because they are unconnected to a proximate policy issue, and usually involve a bit of sentimental self-congratulation about what the outgoing president accomplished along with a warning about something. The most famous was Dwight Eisenhower’s misunderstood caution about the “military-industrial complex.” Reagan’s farewell address might well seem to belong on the dusty shelf with the rest, partly because much of it sounds so familiar. But it is salient now for two reasons: as a model of public argumentation that Reagan’s would-be successors should study carefully and emulate; and second, given that President Obama is ratcheting up a new front in the axial argument of American politics—how to understand the principle of equality—it is useful to see how the most successful conservative of the last 50 years approached the issue.

Reagan’s farewell includes several traits and images that appeared in almost all Reagan speeches stretching back to the 1950s, especially his favorite “City on a Hill” metaphor. Much of the speech was like other farewells, boasting of positive accomplishments—in Reagan’s case, a revived economy and renewed confidence and patriotism. He engaged in some partisan argumentation in his typically gentle way:  

Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that “The engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they're likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”

Notice that Reagan here omits mentioning his Democratic opponents by name; he singles out “pundits” instead. But he also displayed a trait that often gets overlooked: modesty. Reagan bestowed full credit on the American people rather than himself. The contrast with the current president couldn’t be more stark:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.

Like most of his speeches, Reagan avoided putting arguments solely in abstractions or numbers alone. To the contrary, Reagan usually illustrated a point through a well-told story, typically very brief but with vivid imagery. In his farewell address he talked about the desperate Vietnamese refugee who greeted his American rescuer on the high seas with the words, “Hello American sailor; hello, freedom man.”

Reagan wrapped the account of his presidency inside a longer overall story, indeed a history lesson that stretched back to the founding itself:

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn't tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world's constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I've tried to do these past eight years.


But back in the 1960s, when I began, it seemed to me that we'd begun reversing the order of things—that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, “Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.


I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.

This passage could be repeated again today virtually without change. The main point can be expanded and adapted to the current scene: expanding government control of the economy is not the way to advance equality. The alternative to more entitlements and redistribution is expanding opportunity and increasing the dynamism of society. In this week of observing the 50th anniversary of the launch of the “Great Society,” recall that Reagan campaigned for governor of California by propounding a clear and direct alternative, which he called the “Creative Society.”

But perhaps the most remarkable passage in Reagan’s farewell address wasn’t directly about politics or his record at all. Rather, as befits someone who came from the entertainment industry, Reagan directed our attention to the importance of popular culture and education:

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? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties. (Emphasis added.)

Here Reagan puts his finger on the problem that conservatives often wring their hands about: conservatives haven’t effectively contested the institutions of popular culture, such as Hollywood and education:

But now, we're about to enter the nineties, and 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. (Emphasis added.)

So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.

Politics is downstream from culture, the late Andrew Breitbart liked to say. Reagan was there way ahead of him. Cultural and educational trends have only gotten worse since Reagan’s time, and while he didn’t call it the “cultural-industrial complex,” that’s the area where Reagan’s heirs need to devote more of their attention and creativity.

Steven F. Hayward is the visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

FURTHER READING: Hayward also writes, “Reagan vs. Obama: A Test for the News Media,” “Liberal Anti-Democrats,” and “Dump the Bipartisan Mush: Here’s How You Do It for Real.” President Reagan gave AEI's 1988 Francis Boyer Lecture, entitled "Freedom and Vigilance." On Reagan's 88th birthday, Michael Novak commemorated him as a re-founding father in "Our Better Angels." Richard Perle details “How They Misjudged the Reagan I Knew.” Listen to “Rendezvous with Destiny: A Panel on Ronald Reagan” commemorating the 98th anniversary of Reagan’s birth.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group.


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