EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appeared in the February 6, 1981, on National Review.
It often happens in history that the need to conserve essential things requires in fact drastic change. We appear to be living through such a moment, when the will is prepared to meet the necessity.
On January 20 there occurred an extraordinary convergence. Even as President-elect Reagan raised his hand to take his oath of office, the nervous choreographers–”barbarians”–in Teheran were releasing their kidnapped Americans. History, ineluctably, had brought the two events together. The Teheran kidnappers had little choice in the matter.
A presidential Inauguration always has mythic qualities, to one degree or another, and this one possessed them powerfully. In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot reached back to the ancient myths of death and rebirth to describe a familiar human experience. The god was dead, and all things longed for his resurrection. The king was dead. Long live the king.
Hope is always renewed, both in the individual life and in the national experience. Often this goes against all the lessons of experience. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower replaced Harry Truman amid great expectations. In 1960, under John F. Kennedy, the torch passed to a new generation. Both times, things remained pretty much the same. In 1968, Richard Nixon earned a mandate for change, but nothing much happened in terms of policy direction. Carter will go down in history as a complete cipher. The question of the hour is whether or not we are at a moment in history like 1936, when fundamental changes were set in motion.
Even nature seemed to conspire in the mythic pattern. For two weeks before January 20, Washington shivered under an unaccustomed cold spell. Piles of dirty snow lay in the gutters. But, as the wooden stands went up along Pennsylvania Avenue, there was an emotional force felt in that still-provincial city, an atmosphere of waiting, of expectation. Inauguration day brought spring-like temperatures–and even among Reagan’s political opponents, a sense of relief. They, as much as we, needed a new beginning.
The Inaugural Address fulfilled all expectations. The new President had his priorities in order. “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…. 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.”
In terms of policy, that was the domestic core of the speech–a call for drastic change. But, precisely on target, Reagan called for such change in the name of conservative goals. “To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.”
In the foreign-affairs sections of the speech, students of presidential rhetoric noticed changes both large and small. In 1960, Walter Lippmann blue-penciled John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, changing “enemies” to “adversaries.” Twenty years later, Reagan spoke directly and honestly of “the enemies of freedom.” In his splendid peroration, Reagan looked at the vista before him, the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln memorials, and beyond, to the smaller monuments in Arlington National Cemetery. From Belleau Wood to Omaha Beach and the rice paddies of Vietnam, he said, there have been heroes of freedom. The days of hand-wringing, at last, are over.
History, as T. S. Eliot wrote, has many cunning corridors, and success is by no means guaranteed to the new administration. But the priorities are right, and the touch so far absolutely sure. As the President said, “We are Americans.”