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Reagan at Notre Dame
A call to transcendence and duty


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Paul Kengor

For those of us fascinated by Cold War history, the last few months have been a treat, with recognition of two 20th-century giants who played a huge role in peacefully taking down an Evil Empire and ending the longest-running conflict of a bloody century. In February, Americans marked the centennial of the birth of Pres. Ronald Reagan. This May, Catholics marked the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

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Even then, that’s just the tip of the historical iceberg. We’re at the 30-year mark of a bunch of events that conservatives in particular should reflect on, instead of just hopping from news cycle to news cycle. The founders of our movement, with the founding editor of National Review among them, would want us to stand athwart history yelling “Stop”; that is, to pause and pay recognition.

In January 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. Mere weeks later, on March 30, he was shot. On May 13, John Paul II likewise was shot. Both men, we learned only later, came perilously close to bleeding to death during emergency surgery. Those events would convince the president and the pope that God had spared them for a special — indeed, historical — purpose.

Some of this has been acknowledged in retrospectives in recent weeks. What will not get its due, however, was a special speech given by President Reagan on May 17, 1981, at Notre Dame. And here, I encourage conservatives to listen up and take notes.

The occasion was Notre Dame’s commencement, and Reagan gave the assembled undergrads a lesson to remember, including one of his first presidential predictions on the demise of Communism:

The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. . . . It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

The visionary quality of Reagan’s words is evident only in retrospect. Though no one else was making such audacious predictions, and though many scoffed at Reagan, those last pages were indeed being written. Unbeknownst to the world, Communism’s grip on Eastern Europe would not survive the decade. Even the USSR would disintegrate peacefully. On Dec. 25, 1991, a helpless Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the USSR, formally turning out the lights.

For Reagan, that process was aided by an indispensable ally, John Paul II, who had been shot only four days before the Notre Dame speech. Reagan asked the Notre Dame faithful to pray for John Paul, and commended him for his recent encyclical attacking Communism.

The speech was crafted by chief speechwriter Tony Dolan. The draft on file at the Reagan Presidential Library (“Presidential Speeches,” Box 1, Folder 7) shows few edits by Reagan. This was a surprise, given that Reagan heavily rewrote many of these major foreign-policy speeches (especially Dolan’s Evil Empire draft). When I pointed this out in the original version of this article, posted on May 16, Dolan quickly corrected me (through the Comments section below, and in a personal e-mail). He told me I was “too generous” about his role in this speech. “Though the archives don’t show it,” clarified Dolan, “the Gipper did a complete rewrite of my draft on this one. And then called me to apologize. Geez.” Dolan summed up: “RR did a complete rewrite.”

That makes sense, given that this talk is so uniquely and personally Reagan. It began with lengthy extemporaneous remarks, and then wove together quotes and anecdotes, impromptu and prewritten, establishing Reagan’s theme of a larger cause and challenge — a challenge for all of America. It was a complex, enigmatic speech that can only be fully understood today, long after Reagan’s presidency and with current knowledge of what Reagan was secretly pursuing behind the scenes. Reagan telegraphed its unorthodox nature in these opening lines:

The temptation is great to use this forum as an address on a great international or national issue. . . . Indeed, this is somewhat traditional. So, I wasn’t surprised when I read in several reputable journals that I was going to deliver an address on foreign policy and the economy. I’m not going to talk about either.

This wasn’t quite true. Or maybe it was. Reagan’s objective was much larger — yes, untraditional — as if transcending the economy and foreign policy. Reagan drew upon dramatic remarks by Winston Churchill: “When great causes are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”



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