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The Great Rejuvenator

Saturday, April 1, 1989

To call President Reagan the Great Communicator is to trivialize the message he communicated, and to misunderstand the profound influence of his speeches on America and the world. Mr. Reagan, of course, made the most of his Hollywood and his radio training; he was a star performer on the presidential podium. But his effectiveness as a speaker depended on much more than his brilliant choice of speechwriters and his masterful delivery. After all, countless other politicians can read a teleprompter as skillfully and inspirationally as he.

Our oldest president was really the Great Rejuvenator. Ronald Reagan made America feel young again, with its mission in history uncompleted and its greatest accomplishments yet to come. He did so mostly through policies that have restored America's economic growth and military strength. But through his rhetoric, he also reawakened his countrymen's commitment to simple American principles that somehow had been forgotten in the 1960s and 1970s. President Reagan reestablished what America stands for, and, as important, what it stands against. And he gave Americans renewed confidence that, in a world of evil, their principles of liberty and popular government will prevail.

The following collection of excerpts from some of President Reagan's greatest speeches is divided into three sections.

The first is from his speeches about America, "this blessed land" of faith and freedom and charity and opportunity. Inheriting an economic crisis from Jimmy Carter, President Reagan put the blame on the departure from the American democratic tradition, on a government that had "grown beyond the consent of the governed." The president was never very precise about what exactly the federal government should not be doing, but with his constant emphasis on "we the people," he undermined the legitimacy of special-interest programs that do not enjoy widespread public support, and he identified the conservative principle of limited government with the American mainstream. His themes of American heroism and of a "golden door" for immigrants stood in sharp contrast to the "malaise" speeches of his predecessor, and have been adopted without attribution—the highest compliment—by Governor Dukakis.

The second section is about the titanic conflict of our times, the conflict of freedom against totalitarianism. The sophisticates who ridiculed the "evil empire" speech never criticized the president for calling Nazism evil in Germany or for calling racism evil before an audience of southern white conservatives. But his assessment is nonetheless accurate in all three cases: there is still right and wrong in the modern world, and Communism is currently the most dangerous embodiment of evil.

There was no jingoism or bellicosity in the president's case for a strong military, including strategic defenses. Instead there was the commonsense argument, never expressed more eloquently, that in a world of tyrants the democracies must remain armed if they are to remain free and at peace, and that the best protection against war is the moral courage of free peoples willing to defend themselves.

What is most striking about the president's speeches on Communism is his confidence that freedom will prevail, that it is the Soviet Union "that runs against the tide of history." To help move history along, he has gone on the rhetorical offensive against Communism, taking his message of liberty even to the bosom of the enemy. His speeches to the students of Moscow and Shanghai may read like cliched civics textbooks to Americans, but his words of liberty and genuine people's republicanism will reverberate for decades in the Communist world. Despite occasional naive comments about Soviet change under Gorbachev, the president's rallying cry for freedom in Moscow alone justified the summit.

The third section is on the great moral issues confronting America at home. Mr. Reagan was the first president to address that terrible "wound in our national conscience," abortion on demand. His speeches on the tragedy of family breakdown and the permanence of dependency on welfare have helped reshape public debate about how government can best help the poor.

Like Jefferson, Lincoln, and the other great framers of the American rhetorical tradition, President Reagan was guided through all his speeches by a deep faith in Providence. His optimism about the future was grounded in his conviction that God wants man to be free, and that He will deliver good from evil. It is this faith that ultimately made President Reagan the Great Rejuvenator. "Come," said the president in London in June 1988 when he returned from Moscow, "it is not too late to seek a newer world."

ADAM MEYERSON is the Editor of  Policy Review


The Crisis of Overgovernment

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, 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....

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the earth.

Our government has no power except that granted to it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.

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.

All of us—all of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's 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.

Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

It wasn't long ago that we looked out on a different land-locked factory gates and long gasoline lines, intolerable prices and interest rates turning the greatest country on earth into a land of broken dreams. Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom.

What brought America back? The American people brought us back—with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free.

State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986

American Heroism

Those who say that we're in a time when there are no heroes—they 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.

There are 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.

Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.

Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

We're a compassionate people. When the war ended we helped rebuild our allies—and our enemies as well. We did this because we wanted to help the innocent victims of bad governments and bad policies, and because, if they prospered, peace would be more secure.

We're an optimistic people. Like you, we inherited a vast land of endless skies, tall mountains, rich fields, and open prairies. It made us see the possibilities in everything. It made us hopeful. And we devised an economic system that rewarded individual effort, that gave us good reason for hope.

Fudan University, Shanghai, April 30, 1984

America's Golden Door

America is really many Americas. We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, and that's truly what we are. We have drawn people from every corner of the Earth. We're composed of virtually every race and religion, and not in small numbers, but large. We have a statue in New York Harbor that speaks of this—a statue of a woman holding a torch of welcome to those who enter our country to become Americans. She has greeted millions upon millions of immigrants to our country. She welcomes them still. She represents our open door.

All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we're proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things in order to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American. And this diversity has more than enriched us; it has literally shaped us.

Fudan University, Shanghai, April 30, 1984

Just this past Fourth of July, the torch atop the Statue of Liberty was hoisted down for replacement. We can be forgiven for thinking maybe it was just worn out from lighting the way to freedom for 17 million new Americans. So now we'll put up a new one.

The poet called Miss Liberty's torch the "lamp beside the golden door." The golden door, that was the entrance to America and it still is. And now you really know why we are here tonight.

The glistening hope of that lamp is still ours. Every promise, every opportunity is still golden in this land. And through that golden door our children can walk tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America.

Her heart is full; her door is still golden, her future bright. She has arms big enough to comfort and strong enough to support. For the strength in her arms is the strength of her people. She will carry on in the '80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed.

In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America's is. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, August 23, 1984


The Evil of Nazism

The lesson of World War II, the one lesson of Nazism, is that freedom must always be stronger than totalitarianism and that good must always be stronger than evil. The moral measure of our two nations will be found in the resolve we show to preserve liberty, to protect life, and to honor and cherish all God's children.

Bitburg Air Base, Federal Republic of Germany, May 5, 1985

Four decades ago we waged a great war to lift the darkness of evil from the world, to let men and women in this country and in every country live in the sunshine of liberty. Our victory was great, and the Federal Republic, Italy, and Japan are now in the community of free nations. But the struggle for freedom is not complete, for today much of the world is still cast in totalitarian darkness.

Twenty-two years ago President John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed that he, too, was a Berliner. Well, today freedom-loving people around the world must say: I am a Berliner, I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism, I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag, I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. 1, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism.

Bitburg Air Base, Federal Republic of Germany, May 5, 1985

The Evil of Racism

There is sin and evil in the world, and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.

I know that you've been horrified, as have I, by the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice. Use the mighty voice of your pulpits and the powerful standing of your churches to denounce and isolate these hate groups in our midst. The commandment given us is clear and simple: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983

We don't lump people by groups or special interests. And, let me add, in the party of Lincoln, there is no room for intolerance and not even a small corner for anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind. Many people are welcome in our house, but not the bigots.

Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, August 23, 1984

The Evil of Communism

Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world....

So, I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I've always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride 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.

National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983

War and Peace

As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it, we will not surrender for it—now or ever.

Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.

Above all we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.

Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used. For the ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas—a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.

British Parliament, June 8, 1982

For the past 20 years we have believed that no war will be launched as long as each side knows it can retaliate with a deadly counterstrike. Well, I believe there is a better way of eliminating the threat of nuclear war. [The] Strategic Defense Initiative ... is the most hopeful possibility of the nuclear age. But it is not well understood.

Some say it will bring war to the heavens—but its purpose is to deter war, in the heavens and on earth. Some say the research would be expensive. Perhaps, but it could save millions of lives, indeed humanity itself. Some say if we build such a system the Soviets will build a defense system of their own. They already have strategic defense that surpasses ours; a civil defense system, where we have almost none; and a research program covering roughly the same areas of technology we're exploring. And finally, some say the research will take a long time. The answer to that is: "Let's get started."

State of the Union Address, February 6, 1985

Respect for human rights is not social work; it is not merely an act of compassion. It is the first obligation of government and the source of its legitimacy. It is also the foundation stone in any structure of world peace. All through history, it has been the dictatorships and the tyrannies that have surrendered first to the cult of militarism and the pursuit of war. Countries based on the consent of the governed, countries that recognize the unalienable rights of the individual, do not make war on each other. Peace is more than just an absence of war. True peace is justice, true peace is freedom, and true peace dictates the recognition of human rights.

U.N. General Assembly, September 22, 1986

Americans seek always to make friends of old antagonists. After a colonial revolution with Britain, we have cemented for all ages the ties of kinship between our nations. After a terrible civil war between North and South, we healed our wounds and found true unity as a nation. We fought two world wars in my lifetime against Germany and one with Japan, but now the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan are two of our closest allies and friends.

Some people point to the trade disputes between us as a sign of strain, but they're the frictions of all families, and the family of free nations is a big and vital and sometimes boisterous one. I can tell you that nothing would please my heart more than in my lifetime to see American and Soviet diplomats grappling with the problem of trade disputes between America and a growing, exuberant, exporting Soviet Union that had opened up to economic freedom and growth.

Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

People do not make wars, governments do—and no mother would ever willingly sacrifice her sons for territorial gain, for economic advantage, for ideology. A people free to choose will always choose peace.

Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

Nations do not distrust each other because they are armed. They are armed because they distrust each other.

appears in many of Reagan's speeches

Communism in Crisis

Quite possibly, we are entering an era in history, a time of lasting change in the Soviet Union. We will have to see. But if so, it's because of the steadfastness of the allies, the democracies, for more than 40 years, and especially in this decade .... Let us embrace honest change when it occurs, but let us also be wary. Let us stay strong.

Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, June 3, 1988

In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis—a crisis where the demands of the economic order are colliding directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union.

It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens.... What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.

British Parliament, June 8, 1982

In the 1950s Khrushchev predicted: "We will bury you." But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, June 12, 1987

Shots Heard Round the Communist World

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, June 12, 1987

We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it's something of a national pastime. Every four years the American people choose a new president, and 1988 is one of those years. At one point there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates—all trying to get my job.

About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and about 1,700 daily newspapers, each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the government, report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote—they decide who will be the next president.

But freedom doesn't begin or end with elections. Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you'll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs—in many places synagogues and mosques—and you'll see families of every conceivable nationality worshipping together.

Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that no government can justly deny—the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

Go into any courtroom and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There, every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women—common citizens, they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman, or any official, has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused.

Go to any university campus, and there you'll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you'll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them—the people's right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police.

Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law. As a matter of fact, one of the many jobs I had before this one was being president of a union, the Screen Actors Guild. I led my union out on strike—and I'm proud to say, we won.

But freedom is more even than this: Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to follow your dream, or stick to your conscience even if you're the only one in a sea of doubters.

Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

Sometimes in America, some of our people may disagree with each other. We are often a highly disputatious nation. We rather like to argue. We are free to disagree among ourselves, and we do. But we always hold together as a society. We've held together for more than 200 years, because we're united by certain things in which we all believe, things to which we've quietly pledged our deepest loyalties....

We believe in the dignity of each man, woman, and child. Our entire system is founded on an appreciation of the special genius of each individual, and of his special right to make his own decisions and lead his own life.

We believe—and we believe it so deeply that Americans know these words by heart—we believe "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Fudan University, Shanghai, April 30, 1984


I am against sending troops to Central America. They are simply not needed. Given a chance and the resources, the people of the area can fight their own fight. They have the men and women. They're capable of doing it. They have the people of their country behind them. All they need is our support. All they need is proof that we care as much about the fight for freedom 700 miles from our shores as the Soviets care about the fight against freedom 5,000 miles from theirs.

Conservative Political Action Conference, March 1, 1985

Forty years ago Republicans and Democrats joined together behind the Truman Doctrine. It must be our policy, Harry Truman declared, to support peoples struggling to preserve their freedom. Under that doctrine, Congress sent aid to Greece just in time to save that country from the closing grip of Communist tyranny. We saved freedom in Greece then—and with that same bipartisan spirit we can save freedom in Nicaragua today....

My fellow Americans, you know where I stand. The Soviets and the Sandinistas must not be permitted to crush freedom in Central America and threaten our own security on our own doorstep.

Now the Congress must decide where it stands. [As Clare Boothe Luce has said,] "the 99th Congress of the United States will be remembered as that body of men and women that either stopped the Communists before it was too late—or did not."

National Address, March 16, 1986


The Wound in Our National Conscience

More than a decade ago, a Supreme Court decision literally wiped off the books of 50 states statutes protecting the rights of unborn children. Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year. Human life legislation ending this tragedy will some day pass the Congress, and you and I must never rest until it does. Unless and until it can be proven that the unborn child is not a living entity, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected. You may remember that when abortion on demand began, many, and, indeed, I'm sure many of you, warned that the practice would lead to a decline in respect for human life, that the philosophical premises used to justify abortion on demand would ultimately be used to justify other attacks on the sacredness of human life—infanticide or mercy killing. Tragically enough, those warnings proved all too true. Only last year a court permitted the death by starvation of a handicapped infant.

National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983

Today there is a wound in our national conscience; America will never be whole as long as the right to life granted by our Creator is denied to the unborn.

State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986

Welfare and Family

In the welfare culture, the breakdown of the family, the most basic support system, has reached crisis proportions—in female and child poverty, child abandonment, horrible crimes, and deteriorating schools. After hundreds of billions of dollars in poverty programs, the plight of the poor grows more painful. But the waste in dollars and cents pales before the most tragic loss—the sinful waste of human spirit and potential.

We can ignore this terrible truth no longer. As Franklin Roosevelt warned 51 years ago before this chamber: Welfare is "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." And now we must escape the spider's web of dependency .... I am talking about real and lasting emancipation, because the success of welfare should be judged by how many of its recipients become independent of welfare.

State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986

In God We Trust

When our Founding Fathers passed the First Amendment, they sought to protect churches from government interference. They never intended to construct a wall of hostility between government and the concept of religious belief itself.

The evidence of this permeates our history and our government. The Declaration of Independence mentions the Supreme Being no less than four times. "In God We Trust" is engraved on our coinage. The Supreme Court opens its proceedings with a religious invocation. And the Members of Congress open their sessions with a prayer. I just happen to believe the schoolchildren of the United States are entitled to the same privileges as Supreme Court justices and congressmen.

National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983

I've always cherished the belief that all of history is such a pilgrimage and that our Maker, while never denying us free will, does over time guide us with a wise and provident hand, giving direction to history and slowly bringing good from evil, leading us ever so slowly, but ever so relentlessly and lovingly, to a moment when the will of man and God are as one again....

Here, then, is our formula for completing our crusade for freedom. Here, the strength of our civilization and our belief in the rights of humanity. Our faith is in a higher law. Yes, we believe in prayer and its power. And like the founding fathers of both our lands, we hold that humanity was meant not to be dishonored by the all powerful state, but to live in the image and likeness of Him who made us.

More than five decades ago when an American president told his generation that they had a rendezvous with destiny, at almost the same moment, a prime minister asked the British people for their finest hour. This rendezvous, this finest hour, is still upon us. Let us seek to do His will in all things, to stand for freedom, to speak for humanity. Come my friends, as it was said of old by Tennyson, it is not too late to seek a newer world.

Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, June 3, 1988

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