Reagan’s Farewell Address, 1989
We feel the need of a close read here at the HP, and circumstance has led us to choose Ronald Reagan’s last speech from the Oval Office in January 1989. It’s an interesting way-back machine for us in 2015, in that the 1980s are not that long in the past, yet the constant references to Reagan by conservatives and others, especially during election years, make it see as if that administration was at once recent enough for these people to remember and have opinions about, but also part of a long-ago past we are light years away from now. Yet it’s clear that we are living every day with the impact of Reagan-era economic policy. The deregulation of industry, tax cutting ideology (if not always practice), anti-government (“government is the problem”) and pro-military stances are all certainly the mantra of most conservatives today, to the point where one might be forgiven for believing this is a long-standing mantra, deeply part of the American soul and history, when really it was thrust into being not quite 30 years ago.
Well, let’s get to the speech:
My fellow Americans:
This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together 8 years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I’ve been saving for a long time.
It’s been the honor of my life to be your President. So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve.
One of the things about the Presidency is that you’re always somewhat apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass—the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn’t return. And so many times I wanted to stop and reach out from behind the glass, and connect. Well, maybe I can do a little of that tonight.
People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom. The sorrow—the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.
—It’s rare that a presidential speech so clearly betrays its writer. It’s very hard to believe that Reagan would ever have found these words, simple and straightforward and yet eloquent—nay poignant—on his own. The writer (whom we assume to be Ken Khachigian, but correct us if we’re wrong) found precisely the words Reagan would want to say, to express his folksy, aw-shucks—yet poetic—persona. It’s almost as if Reagan is parroting his own Reaganness.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
—This is an astounding paragraph. It’s short and has no complex terms, but it manages to a) personalize the president, whom we can picture looking out the window in the morning; b) compare Reagan to Lincoln by saying both men share great and terrible burdens of leadership; c) favor Reagan over Lincoln, because Reagan can look out over a prosperous nation made so by his own policies, whereas Lincoln presided over the disaster of Bull Run. How things have improved since then! —and all thanks to Reagan.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.
It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
—The sentence “It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people” is unwittingly laughable. “Way” back seven years ago is odd, and then for the president to refer to Vietnamese refugees not just as “boat people” (a colloquialism acceptable in private speech but not from the Oval Office), but as “the boat people” is unsettling. It’s too much along the lines of “the Jews”, “the feminists”, “the gays”—a little dehumanizing. And, just for the record, the real height of renewed refugeeism from Vietnam began in 1986, just two years before his January 1989 speech.
Next, the folksiness merges indistinguishably into a corny type of patriotism: of course the American sailor was “hard at work”, and “young, smart, and fiercely observant.” And then suddenly we are all that sailor; we are all beacons of freedom, emblems of liberty, people who stand for something. Now, we at the HP agree that this is what Americans are when we live up to our founding principles. But Reagan makes it clear that his presidency, not those principles, is responsible for this American identity, or really more for the recognition of that leadership role by non-Americans. “In the past few years”—i.e., during his two terms—America has re-established its good standing in the world and Americans have come to believe in their own virtue and purpose again, after… well, after what? What has been preventing us from feeling this way?
The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow summits, from the recession of ’81 to ’82, to the expansion that began in late ’82 and continues to this day, we’ve made a difference. The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created—and filled—19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.
—Okay, the two things that have been keeping us from having pride and a sense of purpose in the world were a bad economy and a loss of morale. The bad economy started in 1981, the year Reagan took office, but the implication of recovery beginning early in his first term is that Reagan inherited the bad economy and quickly fixed it (“we’ve made a difference”). It is startling that he completely elides the Crash of 1987, in which we endured one of the largest and most devastating stock market falls in our history which resulted in $1 trillion in total loss of wealth amongst Americans. It simply did not happen, because “the expansion that began in late ’82 continues to this day”.
Something that happened to me a few years ago reflects some of this. It was back in 1981, and I was attending my first big economic summit, which was held that year in Canada. The meeting place rotates among the member countries. The opening meeting was a formal dinner for the heads of government of the seven industrialized nations. Now, I sat there like the new kid in school and listened, and it was all Francois this and Helmut that. They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a first-name basis. Well, at one point I sort of leaned in and said, “My name’s Ron.” Well, in that same year, we began the actions we felt would ignite an economic comeback—cut taxes and regulation, started to cut spending. And soon the recovery began.
Two years later, another economic summit with pretty much the same cast. At the big opening meeting we all got together, and all of a sudden, just for a moment, I saw that everyone was just sitting there looking at me. And then one of them broke the silence. “Tell us about the American miracle,” he said.
—One’s jaw is left on the floor after this anecdote. Let’s go through it: the president of the United States, a founding nation of the G7, was completely unrecognized at the 1981 G7 meeting in Ottawa. No one spoke to the president of the United States. He had to sit quietly like “the new kid in school” and had no role to play in the summit. Somehow, Reagan (and his speechwriter) believe that we will believe this.
Then Reagan segues to some good old-fashioned American chauvinism: not only are the big bullies at the summit foreigners, but they are French, with wimpy names like Francois, and German, with aggressive yet laughable names like Helmut. The leaders referred to are of course Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. “They dropped titles”—classic foreigners. Snobby representatives of the nobility, and totally contrasted with Reagan, who represented the class-free, all-equal U.S. Somehow, it’s also upsetting that two world leaders who meet often would call each other by their first names; the implication is that Reagan, the president of the U.S., does not know the attendees at the G7 and therefore can’t join in their conversation. But finally, Reagan gets bold and just like the U.S. in the 20th century, asserts himself with the Europeans and becomes their leader. He gives his simple, wholesome, free-of-monarchical-taint, good American name—Ron—and forces his way into the group. His economic plan sparked the massive U.S. recovery and when the world leaders met again, “everyone was just sitting there looking at me”. The Cinderella transformation is complete! Now all those snobby foreigners want to hear about “the American Miracle.”
This is so clearly a bit of fantasy that one wonders, quite seriously, whether Reagan really believed it himself. It’s possible that that is how he perceived it by January 1989, because it fits into his personal mythos so well.
We’ll break here, and come back next time with Reagan’s description of his economic miracle.