Thirty years ago, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on the winter Wednesday of Jan. 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan, one month shy of his 78th birthday, sat down to deliver his 34th and final Oval Office speech to the American people.
At the time, the remarks were noted for their characteristic grace. Reagan had, after all, catapulted to political fame a quarter century before, in 1964, with a memorable television address on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, known in conservative circles simply as “The Speech.” But for all its eloquence, this farewell address was seen as little more than a quiet closing note to a long and largely popular presidency.
History, though, has a wonderful way of changing how we view things. In real time, people and events that are dismissed or derided can come to look better, and loom larger, in retrospect.
The statures of Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush have grown since they left the White House. The sophisticated term for this phenomenon is revisionism, but it can also be understood as commonsensical, since we should know snap judgments are not always the right judgments. Humility, too, ought to teach us there’s always more to learn.
In that spirit, given the remarks delivered from the same office this week by the 45th president, and particularly in light of Trump’s persistent anti-immigration posture and policies, the Reagan farewell address deserves reconsideration and merits elevation, I believe, to the ranks of the closing words of George Washington, who warned against “entangling alliances” and the destructive “spirit of party,” and of Dwight Eisenhower, who advised Americans to beware of the “military-industrial complex.”
To begin with, the speech is reflective and honest about the nature of the presidency — about what it’s really like to sit behind that desk.
“One of the things about the presidency is that you’re always somewhat apart,” Reagan told the country. “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.”
By acknowledging the distance between the people and the powerful, he closed it, bringing his listeners into his orbit in rather the way his old hero Franklin Roosevelt used to do with his fireside chats. Neither Reagan nor Roosevelt turned red in the face or bullied or blustered; they spoke to us neighbor to neighbor, affirming the nature of self-government.
Reagan’s speech is modest, determinedly so. “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,” he said. “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.” No “I alone can fix it” for the Gipper.
The words — composed by speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who consulted closely with Reagan in those closing weeks of his reign — are as different in spirit and in substance from Trump’s as words could be and still be rendered in the same tongue. Invoking the Puritan John Winthrop, who in 1630 drew on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when speaking of America as a “city upon a hill,” Reagan said, “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.” It was a free, proud city, built on a strong foundation, full of commerce and creativity, he said, adding, “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 manifestly not how Trump sees it. From his announcement-speech allusion to “rapists” coming in from Mexico to his lament about “American carnage” to his manufacturing of a “crisis” at the border that requires a wall, the 45th president speaks in the vernacular of darkness, not light; of exclusion, not inclusion. And whatever his faults — and he had many — Ronald Reagan believed in the possibilities of a country that was forever reinventing itself. He knew, too, that the nation had grown stronger the more widely it had opened its arms and the more generously it had interpreted Thomas Jefferson’s assertion of equality in the Declaration of Independence.
He was about hope, not fear. And that is another reason his farewell address should be more widely appreciated: It’s a kind of final testament of an American president who had a genuine faith in the future. Reagan was a practical man, and he knew, as he put it, that “because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will be ours.”3 comments on this story
Or so we can hope. His last words on that long-ago Wednesday bear hearing, and pondering. “And how stands the city on this winter night?” Reagan asked. “More prosperous, more secure and happier than it was eight years ago. 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.” They hurtle through that darkness even now. Reagan would have us light the lamp and open our arms — for that’s what cities on a hill do.