Ronald Reagan is the last president to make a mark with his oratory. When he was amidst the fray, his supporters always believed that he could go before the nation or any crowd and put everything right. He burst into politics during the Goldwater campaign when he, and not the candidate, gave the memorable oration. This was his famous “Time for Choosing” speech, and it was also his first step to the White House.
Of course it was not Reagan’s words alone that caused the Wall to come down in Berlin or the Evil Empire that built it to crumble. But the words were vital. In Reagan the word and deed came together as they have in only a few of our best presidents.
We can see both his nature and his understanding from the first speech he gave as president. Inaugural addresses are a hallowed American ceremony. The Constitution prescribes an oath that the president must take. Each has taken it since the first, George Washington. Each has then turned to make remarks to those assembled. Reagan’s first is worthy of the best of them, because it is like the best of them.
At his first inauguration, Reagan broke tradition in order to elevate it. For the first time he moved the ceremony around to the west side of the Capitol, the side of the building that looks out toward the National Mall. This permitted him to take us on a tour of the National Mall as his first executive act.
He begins the speech humbly. This is, he says, a “solemn and most momentous occasion for a few of us.” He means himself, his family and his friends. But to the nation, “it is a commonplace occurrence.” It is the glory of the nation that presidents come and go peacefully and according to the popular will. Right away he demotes himself below the Constitution and the nation whose liberty it preserves. He celebrates not himself, but the rule of law.
Reagan proceeds to give us, his fellow citizens, a challenge: “We the people” must govern ourselves, otherwise (and here he paraphrases Lincoln) “who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” In this country “our Government has no power except that granted it by the people.” And that is why “here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man…”
Then he turns to the theme of heroism, one of his favorites. He mentions factory workers and farmers, clerks and entrepreneurs.
From these ordinary Americans he turns to certain famous men. Directly before him, he notices, is the monument to a “monumental man.” Washington, the Father of Our Country, was a man of “humility who came to greatness reluctantly.” Off to the side is Jefferson: “The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence.”
And farther out are “the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.”
This admiration of the hero by Reagan is no idle reverie. At the end he turns to Arlington National Cemetery, where the soldiers are buried. The crosses and Stars of David “add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.”
And then comes a wonderful thing, a thing that establishes the connection between these famous heroes and ordinary citizens. Before each cross and Star of David “is a monument to the kinds of hero I spoke of earlier.” This means that before each marker is planted another George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
Reagan then gives an example, the first of the many citizen heroes that he would later name in his State of the Union addresses. Buried there in Arlington is Martin Treptow, killed on the western front in Europe in 1917. In his diary, Treptow wrote: “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.”
This message of self-government, founded in our rights, depending upon each of us doing his duty, is the message of Ronald Reagan, as it was the message of Washington and Lincoln before him.
May he rest easy, as he would say, “wrapped in God’s loving arms.”
Lay Your Hammer Down:
Commencement Address to the Hillsdale College Class of 2004
Edwin J. Feulner
Edwin J. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation. He has studied at the University of Edinburgh, the London School of Economics, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University and Regis University. He is the author of five books, including Intellectual Pilgrims and The March of Freedom, and has published articles in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times, the Washington Post and other major newspapers. Dr. Feulner is treasurer and trustee of the Mont Pelerin Society; trustee and former chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute; member of the board of the National Chamber Foundation; member of the board of visitors of George Mason University; and a trustee of the Acton Institute and the International Republican Institute. He is past president of several organizations, including the Philadelphia Society and the Mont Pelerin Society, and has served on many congressional and executive branch commissions. He was domestic policy consultant to President Ronald Reagan, and among his many awards and honors is a Presidential Citizen’s Medal conferred by President Reagan on January 18, 1989.