Reagan’s farewell address: a warning (and how!)

Posted on April 10, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on Reagan’s farewell address of January 1989. In this section, the final one, Reagan shares his final thoughts on our nation’s history and identity, and gives his parting presidential warning.

I’ve been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit is one. I’ve been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight isn’t for arguments, and I’m going to hold my tongue. But an observation: 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. 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. Well, action is still needed. If we’re to finish the job, Reagan’s regiments will have to become the Bush brigades. Soon he’ll be the chief, and he’ll need you every bit as much as I did.

—This is oddly phrased in the fifth sentence, but Reagan is thanking a new category of political activist, one that was indeed born during his presidency and has ballooned to gargantuan proportions today: “grassroots” attack activism. The elder statesmen here at the HP remember modest kitchen tables in the 1980s covered in urgent, nay hysterical letters from many different political groups, mostly Christian-affilitated, demanding that the housewife recipients immediately write letters of protest to Congress about pending legislation or just general wrong-headed and dangerous political and social trends. The price of inaction was the fiery destruction of the U.S. in a communist, atheist lake of fire. Such were the beginnings of “Reagan’s regiments”, brought fully to flower by the Tea Party activists, PACs, and paid political ads of today.

Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

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.

—The most glaring omission from this section is a definition of “what America is and what she represents”. Older Americans know what “it” means, they absorbed “it” through their pores in that better, more wholesome and true America that existed before the evil 1960s (“35 or so years of age” in 1989 translates to people born by 1954). It is in the mid-60s that good in America came to a screeching halt.

It is funny to note that earlier in this speech Reagan spoke of celebrating the anniversaries of his 39th birthday, and when he gave this speech in January 1989 he was almost 78, but now suddenly he is 35 or so. Clearly he does not want the values he is celebrating to come off as ancient and inapplicable to all but the elderly.

The only clue we have about what “it” is is war: “the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio”. Patriotism comes up after that sentence, and one feels that it is actually patriotism that is “what America is”—America is patriotism, America is love of America. Let’s go all the way with our syllogism: love of America is love of America. But no—at the very end “democratic values” are at last brought forward. But that throwaway mention at the very end of a stirring paragraph about war and patriotism, in which fighting in a war is the only way to honor your country and patriotism itself is a virtue, is not very convincing.

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 production [protection].

—Ah, the 60s have done a number on Americans. Young parents and young people in the media think “an unambivalent appreciation of America” and “well-grounded patriotism” are passé. Where to begin?

First, what does “appreciation of America” even mean in that sentence? An “appreciation of America” seems different in kind from a respect for America’s First Amendment rights. You don’t appreciate rights, you exercise and uphold them. You protect them from attack. You may appreciate the Constitution for enshrining those rights, but again the word itself summons up an inescapable image of people being grateful for something they may or may not deserve to have. “I would appreciate it if you’d get that book for me”—you don’t have to, and that’s why I appreciate you doing it. “I expect to be allowed full exercise of my rights” is different from “I appreciate being able to exercise my rights.” The former establishes that no one has to earn rights; the latter insinuates that we are lucky to be granted rights and could lose them if we’re not grateful enough.

Next, what is “our spirit”? And what, more ominously, is “reinstitutionalizing” it? “Spirit” must be taught in schools and churches and the media so that Americans understand that their freedom is equal parts vital and fragile. Again, it seems like a spirit of appreciation/groveling: teach Americans to be grateful that they are granted the favor of having freedom and rights for some unknown reason or for no good reason. That’s not what our Constitution says: it says we have unalienable rights from God, natural rights that no human can grant or take away. To be human is to have these rights to liberty. Our government in the U.S. lives up to and honors that state of being, it doesn’t create it.

Last, since when is “freedom of enterprise” in the Constitution? Usually presidents and Americans talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reagan’s triad is freedom of speech, religion, and “enterprise”, and they all work together: churches and corporations should have the freedom to “reinstitutionalize” their agendas by getting religion back into schools and allowing corporations to rewrite the law, and the federal government would be trampling freedom if it regulated business or separated church from state.

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. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

—American history has two poles: its European founders the Pilgrims, and WWII. Specifically, our bombing of Tokyo and our invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe are singled out—two times when the U.S. was on the attack. If we forget what we did (military attack) we won’t know who we are.

Look, no one is more on board with the idea that WWII was a just war than the HP. The U.S. had to be on the attack in that war, and its victory over imperial Japan and the Nazis was crucial to the existence of justice and liberty on our planet. But there is more to defending liberty than shooting bullets in a war. Americans can and must defend liberty every day at home, by respecting others’ rights and exercising their own. If we don’t do that, if we don’t uphold democracy here, then how and why should we go to war to preserve democracy elsewhere? If we allow money to corrupt our politics and religion to control our government, and if the only entities in this nation who have true liberty are corporations, then, and only then “we won’t know who we are.”

This is more than “civic ritual”. This is the “it”, this is what America is and what she stands for, and what it means to be an American. “Nailing” people is not. What is that dinner table conversation supposed to be? So far, it would be a list of battles and bombings and wars and would not include one word about how we preserve freedom at home.

And that’s about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

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. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And 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 how I saw it, and see it still.

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

—John Winthrop a) did not consider himself as living in America, b) was not a Pilgrim, c) was not looking to establish freedom of religion as we know it, and d) did not call it a “shining” city on a hill. The “shining” part is pure Camelot nostalgia demanding that we believe that the earliest white settlers in America were heroes dedicated to freedom and democracy. Winthrop was a Puritan creating an outpost of the kingdom of England where reformed Anglicanism could be practiced and brought to a state of perfection. And when he said “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he meant that all of the failures of his settlement would be visible to the world; it was about the pressure of doing well when everyone is watching.

But Winthrop was a “freedom man” [sic] who was heavily involved in the first codification of law written in what would become the United States, the 1641 Body of Liberties that promoted freedoms Reagan would have “nailed” him for in a minute. Like making it illegal to abandon the poor to poverty, and making it illegal to use legal tricks and jargon to win a court case, and making it illegal for business owners to cheat their customers.

Again with big business in Reagan’s corporation on a hill, “humming with commerce”. And his city is not quite open to “all” the pilgrims from lost places hurtling toward darkness, as the U.S. fought a prolonged battle against refugee immigration from Asia and Latin America during his administrations.

We’ve done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.

And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

—Oh yes, they made a difference. The deregulation, corporate personhood, resentment of taxation, religious affiliations with politics, and indignant refusal to help the less fortunate through federal programs begun by Reagan’s men and women, the Reagan revolution, still goes strong today.

Enough–next time the wrap-up.

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