Jan. 20, 2011
President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office thirty years on the West Front of the Capitol thirty years ago today. Reagan wanted his Inauguration to symbolize a break with the past. This most outspokenly conservative president believed that the journey West had been the most significant part of our national character. He had himself taken New York editor Horace Greeleys advice: Go West, Young Man.
As he looked out on that fine, clear afternoon, he spoke of the scene before him:
This is the first time in history that this ceremony has been held... on this West Front of the Capitol. Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man: George Washington, Father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence.
And then beyond the Reflecting Pool 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.
Unlike todays leaders, Reagan was in no doubt about American exceptionalism. He thought an overweening government threatened Americas exceptionalism. He said so plainly:
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.
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.
Reagan went to Hollywood as a young man. There, he built a career and a family and a modest family fortune. He came to understand that under liberal tax laws, it made no sense to work harder, to make that extra movie, or host that extra few TV programs if Washington was going to claim all that income in higher taxes.
Liberal Speaker of the House Tip ONeill thought Reagan terribly selfish for his opposition to higher marginal tax rates. And Tip thought he was about to unleash a decade of greed upon the country. Reagan thought a man could be counted as truly liberal who gave away his own money, not if he voted to have the government take away his neighbors money. Reagan was extremely generous with his own money. In the decade of the 1980s, under his leadership, we saw an unprecedented avalanche of private charitable giving.
We also saw some terrible scandals on Wall Street. But why is it a reflection on Reagans conservatism when liberals on Wall Street commit abuses? Even recently, we saw that most of Bernie Madoffs victims were charter members of that same Hollywood left that thinks every other business and industry is crooked. When called upon to invest their own money, these Hollywood liberals beat a path to the quick, if shady, buck.
Speaker Tip ONeill held the seat in the House of Representatives that young John Kennedy had occupied until 1953. Young Jack was inaugurated as President on this day fifty years ago.
Its a matter of historical fact that Reagan the President never criticized President Kennedy. He had too much respect for all our great history to do that. And he was wise enough to know that millions of those who had voted Jack into office became Reagan Democrats by 1980.
Perhaps thats why Reagan, on this day in 1981, sought to unify the country by quoting not one of his fellow Westerners, not some conservative political icon from the 1950s, but a Patriot from Boston, the beloved hometown of Tip ONeill and Jack Kennedy:
Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, "Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of.... On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."
We are today at the halfway point of a radical new administration. What is most amazing about this administration is what a sharp departure it is from the America of both Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Its time again to act worthy of ourselves.