Politics & Policy

The Fog Lifts

Listening to Reagan's inaugural, 25 years later.

The 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration (January 20) coincides with a renewal of concern about the intentions of Iran, which moments after Reagan’s swearing in released the 52 American hostages it had held for more than a year. The tension of the hostage release added genuine drama to America’s preeminent democratic ritual. Most Americans watching on television saw a split-screen scene, with Reagan juxtaposed next to the darkened night sky of Tehran. The Washington Post’s TV critic Tom Shales wrote, “Perhaps not since the funeral of John F. Kennedy have Americans kept so diligent a vigil before their television sets.” The media found irresistible the dramatic parallel between this moment and something that might have come from Reagan’s previous career. The Washington Post editorialized that “it was a scene as theatrical as any in which Mr. Reagan played in Hollywood,” while New York Times columnist James Reston (who was not an admirer of Reagan) called the moment a “theatrical triumph. . . . In his long years as an actor and a politician, Ronald Reagan never had such a perfect setting on the American stage, let alone the world stage.” Separately in the Times, Howell Raines thought Reagan played the scene as if straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

The high drama of the hostages’ release distracted somewhat from Reagan’s inaugural address, in which the president signaled that he indeed intended to govern according to his conservative principles. The speech is worth a close reading for its structure as well as its argument–even more so since Reagan wrote most of the speech himself, with the assistance of Ken Khachigian. One remarkable aspect of the address is how little was devoted to foreign policy, given the prominence with which Reagan had crusaded against America’s weakness toward the Soviet Union. Reagan devoted only four short paragraphs–just 224 words out of a total 2,425–to foreign policy, near the end of the speech, almost a perfunctory mention. Unlike John F. Kennedy’s almost wholly foreign-oriented inaugural address, Reagan’s focused on the domestic health of the nation. (Also unlike Kennedy, who changed the word “enemies” to “adversaries” in the final draft of his inaugural address, Reagan referred to the “enemies of freedom.”)

Who Can Govern Others Who Cannot Govern Himself?

The most obvious messages of the address concerned the connection between big government and the poor economy, and Reagan’s rejection of the pessimism of the moment. He began with a review of the condition of the economy:

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. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people. Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, causing human misery and personal indignity. 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.

While pledging to reverse this state of affairs, Reagan fired his first broadside against the established order, declaring: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. . . . It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.” Liberals could scarcely envision ever hearing such heresy from the presidential podium. Although many liberals had been shaken by the disasters of the last 15 years, from Vietnam and the Great Society through Carter’s ineffectual rule, there was never a point at which the fundamental premises of modern liberalism were attacked from the pinnacle of American power. The moment seemed very far removed from when a liberal intellectual such as Robert Mayard Hutchins could declare: “The notion that the sole concern of a free society is the limitation of governmental authority and that that government is best which governs least is certainly archaic. Our object today should not be to weaken government in competition with other centers of power, but rather to strengthen it as the agency charged with the responsibility for the common good.”

Reagan represented his aim not in the context of mere economic policy, but as a restoration of free government as the Founders intended it to work. He rejected the reformist theme that the presidency, or our democracy in general, was inadequate to the times.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Reagan had so fully internalized the thought of so many of his political forebears such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt that it is not clear whether he knew he was paraphrasing them. Reagan had said much the same thing about self-government in his first inaugural address as California’s governor in 1967. Where he got it is no mystery. In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” Unlike Hutchins and other liberals, Reagan didn’t think Jefferson’s philosophy was “archaic.”

Reagan said, “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) Note here that Reagan didn’t rest his argument against the growth of government on the ground of efficiency or effectiveness, but on the constitutional ground of consent. This had been a constant theme of Reagan’s political teaching for more than 20 years, but one that was rarely heard from America’s political class–even from conservatives. He was careful, though, to qualify his critique of government:

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. . . . Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

“On these principles,” Reagan concluded with emphasis, “there will be no compromise.”

Morning in America

Throughout his entire discussion of the political and economic principles he would follow, Reagan weaved several arguments against the pessimistim that had overtaken the nation. “It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline.” As some would have us believe was a not-so-oblique reference to his predecessor Jimmy Carter. Four years before Carter had used his inaugural address to endorse the idea of “the limits to growth” and counsel Americans to begin diminishing their expectations for the future. “We have learned that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better,’ ” Carter said, “that even our great Nation has its recognized limits.”

But Reagan went beyond merely refuting the “small is beautiful” lemonade that liberals had attempted to make out of limits-to-growth lemons. He connected his rejection of the nation’s pessimism, his political teaching about limited government, and confidence in economic revival to the idea of heroism. One of the corollaries of the idea of the limits to growth and diminished expectations was that heroism is anachronistic. “We have every right to dream heroic dreams,” Reagan said.

Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life. Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak–you, the citizens of this blessed land.

So far this is no more than a garden-variety salute to the American Everyman, a staple of American political rhetoric. But Reagan integrated this shopworn theme into the heart of his teaching about the principles of American democracy. He did it in a way that went beyond his mere words.

Reagan’s 1981 inaugural was the first in the nation’s history to be held on the west front of the Capitol building. From the west front, facing the Mall and looking out across the broad expanse of the nation, Reagan took note of the famous national monuments to “the giants upon whose shoulders we stand”–Washington, Jefferson, and above all Lincoln. About Lincoln, Reagan said: “Whoever in his heart would understand the meaning of America, will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.” He also took note of the heroism of the Founders in establishing our constitutional order.

Then Reagan drew the nation’s attention to another set of monuments visible in the far distance–the headstones of Arlington National Cemetery. Here Reagan made out the argument that self-government requires that all American citizens, in a sense, be heroes. “Each one of those markers is a monument to the kind of hero I spoke of earlier.” He then selected the example of one ordinary American who did an extraordinary deed comparable in merit to the giants such as Washington and Lincoln.

Under one such marker lies a young man, Martin Treptow, who left his job in a small town barbershop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire. We’re told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words: “America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

Reagan noted that current circumstances didn’t require Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice as had Treptow; he drew an equivalence between the virtue of Treptow and ordinary citizens as a way of summoning Americans to think themselves worthy of their liberty. Reagan closed: “We can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

The More Things Change . . . The news media faithfully reported the content of the speech, but missed its deeper theme. They jumped all over a factual problem in the speech; Martin Treptow isn’t buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as Reagan had implied; he is buried in Wisconsin. Lou Cannon later discovered that Reagan’s staff had learned this in advance, but Reagan didn’t want to drop the story, or confuse the flow of his narrative by saying Treptow is buried in Wisconsin while alluding to Arlington Cemetery and the other national monuments visible in the distance. For the media, this was yet another example of Reagan playing fast and loose with facts; “It would prove a portent of his presidency,” Cannon wrote. Reagan’s substantive message connecting the virtue of ordinary citizens such as Treptow–does it really matter where he is buried?–to the virtue of the nation as the common source of the nation’s greatness was lost to the media mind.

A few commentators grasped Reagan’s theme, and didn’t like it. In a foreshadowing of a skirmish to come in the 1980s, Richard Cohen displayed liberalism’s increasing reflex for victimology by writing that “Ronald Reagan says [Treptow] is a hero. He might just call himself a victim . . . Heroes can be victims.” Cohen thought a welfare mother struggling to keep her family together was equally or more worthy of heroic praise. New York Times columnist Tom Wicker thought Reagan effective in employing the “hackneyed theme of the nation’s greatness,” but tut-tutted about “the danger in too much exceptionalist fervor.” This discomfort with ritualistic expressions of American greatness, and the natural patriotism it elicits, is one of the odd tics of modern liberalism that has contributed to the public diminished esteem for liberals.

But these discordant notes amounted to idle back chatter on a day of otherwise euphonious commentary for Reagan’s formal arrival. The release of the hostages not only removed a major problem for the incoming president, but also added significantly to the tailwind that all incoming presidents enjoy during their so-called “honeymoon” period. Reagan’s campaign theme had been “a new beginning,” and there was almost a palpable sense of a break with the past mid-day on January 20. In The Age of Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had written of Franklin Roosevelt’s hopeful Inauguration Day that “the fog of despair hung over the land” as FDR assumed office in 1933. With FDR’s inaugural address, “Across the land the fog began to lift.” Many commentators had drawn a comparison between Roosevelt’s moment in 1933 and Reagan’s moment in 1981. Political scientist James Ceaser would reflect several year later that “the transformation in American politics that took place in 1981 was probably greater than any that has occurred since the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933,” but there were lots of people saying the same thing around Inauguration Day. Wilbur Mills, the legendary former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told a reporter: “The situation today is as dangerous as the one Roosevelt faced. I really believe it.” Henry Fairlie, a writer of moderate liberal sensibilities, was almost giddy at the spectacle: “It is almost a heresy for someone of my beliefs to say that this transition takes my mind back to 1933. Yet how can one deny it? This is not Truman to Eisenhower, or Eisenhower to Kennedy, or Johnson to Nixon, or Ford to Carter. This is a feeling of a nation with its own mandate.” The conjunction of the end of America’s hostage agony with Reagan’s ascension caused people to think that maybe, just maybe, the country had turned a corner. The day after Reagan’s inaugural the Washington Post wrote: “By the time he left the Capitol, America seemed a different place.”

Steven F. Hayward is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, and Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. This article adapted from his work in progress on the Reagan presidency, The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989


The Latest