Today’s college students were still watching Sesame Street when Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989. Now that he’s gone, what can we teach them about his life and times?
For years, I have introduced Reagan to my students through his March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. Because of its most famous phrase, people remember it better as the “evil empire” speech.
The typescript is available at the Reagan Library. When students see copies, they not only glimpse how a presidential address takes shape, they also learn that Reagan played an active role in speechwriting. Though Tony Dolan drafted the address–and deserves credit for the “evil empire” phrase–Reagan edited every line, adding large swatches of prose in his distinctive hand. (Unlike most political leaders, Reagan wrote legibly.) The typescript always startles those who think that he passively recited what aides put in front of him. From start to finish, the speech said what Ronald Reagan meant to say.
Faith was a big part of his message. He invoked the nation’s religious heritage to condemn programs providing birth control to minors without parental consent. And he inserted these lines: “Is all of Judeo-Christian tradition wrong? Are we to believe that something so sacred can be looked upon as a purely physical thing with no potential for emotional and psychological harm?”
The religious references enraged liberals, especially in academia. Historian Henry Steele Commager told the Washington Post: “It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all. No other presidential speech has ever so flagrantly allied the government with religion.”
Commager’s rant was silly. Presidents had been invoking God since the 18th century, and Reagan himself quoted George Washington: “[O]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Indeed, the Reagan speech can launch a spirited classroom discussion of religion’s deep impact on American thought and rhetoric.
Candor does compel me to note one mistake: Reagan quoted the spurious Tocqueville line about America being great because it is good. But it’s the liberals who err when they accuse him of painting a false portrait of a sinless American history. Calling on the evangelicals to condemn hate groups, he said: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal…. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”
The intellectual fad of the day was “moral equivalence,” the notion that a flawed America could not claim moral superiority over the Soviet Union. Reagan saw past such nonsense, declaring the U.S.S.R. to be “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
He asked the evangelicals to shun the temptation “of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
“Primitive: that is the only word for it,” sputtered Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. Tom Wicker, another Times columnist, derided Reagan’s attack on moral equivalence by…serving another round of moral equivalence: “The holy war mentality on either side tends to evoke it on the other; and holy wars are both the hardest to avoid and the least likely to be settled short of one side’s annihilation. “
In a cockeyed way, Wicker was right. It was a holy war, and it did end in the annihilation of Soviet Communism. By rattling the leaders in Moscow, the speech proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Reagan said, “I believe that Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”
Reagan’s legacy is one of moral clarity. To defeat evil, he knew, you have to call it by its name.
–John J. Pitney, Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Art of Political Warfare.