A Strong America

Ronald Reagan’s Farewell, 30 Years Ago Today — and His Everlasting Advice to America

'He believed the individual to be greater than the state'

Image Credit: Library of Congress

Thirty years ago today, Ronald Wilson Reagan, former actor, former seven-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, former two-term governor of California, and, for only two more weeks at that time, the 40th president of the United States, gave his last speech from the Oval Office of the White House. It was televised to millions of his fellow citizens.

Reagan looked handsome and fit, pretty much the same as he’d looked when he entered the office in 1981. He was once asked during the 1980 campaign about how Jimmy Carter had aged in office. Reagan replied, “It’s how you do the job. The way Carter does it, of course you would age.”

Reagan did the job of president the way it was supposed to be done.

Clocking in at some 20 minutes long and over 3,000 words, his farewell address opened with classic Reagan: He talked about the American people.

“My fellow Americans,” he opened. “This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together eight years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go.”

Reagan understood his audience — the voter, his “fellow Americans” and citizens — had just as much of a role in the modern presidency as he did. It reflected him and his persona to include the audience, and it was quintessential Reagan. It was never just “I,” “me” or “my” — it was “we,” “us” and “ours.”

This was emphasized by his anecdote about his favorite window, on the upper floor, looking out at the National Mall and the monuments. Reagan gave the viewer a tour of the White House. He noted, sweetly, the scene out that window: “The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.”

He was talking about the peace and freedom of the individual, a philosophy born in him as a child of the Enlightenment, which he cherished. He did not speak philosophically about the state, about the New Deal or the Great Society. One biographer called him Emersonian, and indeed he was.

He’d spoken many, many times about the privacy and dignity of the individual because he believed the individual to be greater than the state. He’d come up through politics criticizing the failed government programs, such as the New Deal, of liberals.

He included us — individuals. And he spoke, uncharacteristically, about the successes of the Reagan Revolution.

“The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created — and filled — 19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.”

In so many words, he was also talking about the coming victory over communism, of which he was the architect. He said, “The detente of the 1970s was based not on actions but promises.”

“They’d promise to treat their own people and the people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”

He always knew the Soviets were thugs.

And then he spoke again in anecdotes, as he always had.

“I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past eight years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one — a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early ’80s, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”’

Reagan admired political refugees, escaping communist tyranny, who came to America seeking freedom.

He waxed about eight years prior. “Well, back in 1980, when I was running for president, it was all so different. Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that ‘the engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they’re likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called ‘radical” was really ‘right.’ What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.’

“And in all of that time I won a nickname, ‘the Great Communicator,'” he continued. “But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

“They called it the Reagan Revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.” The title “the Great Communicator” had been hung on Reagan as a term of derision by a chronic critic, Judy Bacharach of the old Washington Star during the 1980 campaign. But like the patriots of old, Reaganites took to the name and stuck it in their caps and called it macaroni.”

He also paid tribute to the men and women of the Reagan Revolution and in this, I knew he was speaking to us, my wife Zorine, me, so many of our young friends who’d followed this man to Washington, someone we adored and whom we believed in and whom we knew was incapable of doing a dishonest or dishonorable thing — someone who would always do the right thing.

As Reagan once told his audience at CPAC, “You dance with the one who brung ya.” He wanted one last dance with the Reaganites whom he’d brung along for the dance going back to 1964.

Reagan only spoke briefly of the incoming president, George H.W. Bush, which probably suited Nancy Reagan just fine. It was an open secret that she and the Bushes did not get along. She’d become especially mad at her husband’s successor when, at the 1988 New Orleans convention, Bush paid little tribute to Reagan, instead giving a backhand with his pointed “kinder, gentler” comments.

Bush owed much of his career to Reagan, yet many Reaganites thought the Bushies were ungrateful. They proved it later, in 1989, when Reagan’s men and women found doors slammed in their faces by the ascending Bushies. There were no jobs in the Bush country club for the blue-collar Reaganites.

Related: The Most Important Phone Call Ronald Reagan Ever Made

President Reagan then shifted to his more practical views of the world, going through a history of his presidency. Again, he included us, the viewer — “It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination” — but it gave insight into the president’s mindset.

“That, despite all the troubles that happened, from the recession to Iran-Contra, to so much more, that things picked up in the decade. And again, it wasn’t because of him — despite his moniker “Great Communicator” — it was because of “the heart of a great nation, from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

He had some final wisdom to impart. He always did, as a charter member of the Greatest Generation.

“If we forget what we did,” he said — noting such achievements as the invasion of Normandy against the despotic Nazis, or the freedom-seeking Pilgrims, or the bravery of Jimmy Doolittle soon after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor — “we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”

And Reagan, like a great sage, noted that all the change in America, all of it, “begins at the dinner table.” He told the children, directly, “If your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”

Imagine the next day, with all the children who watched this man talk to them, asking their parents about American identity and American exceptionalism. From them, Reagan believed, we would build our future, and build a better America.

A “shining city on a hill,” he was apt to call the United States. “Like a beacon of hope, of a good future, and of opportunity. The younger generation, who knew and looked up to those before, would be keen to keep that shining city lit for all. Reagan knew that, dearly. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

“And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

“My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.”

“We’ve done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan Revolution, the men and women across America who for eight years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.”

Though 77, he was looking forward to the next chapter in his life, that of private citizen Ronald Reagan. He spoke of getting back to California, and the next-to-last entry in his diary stated, “Tomorrow I stop being president.”

The last day read, “Then home and the start of our new life.”

Think of that. He’s 77 and is so optimistic, looking forward to a next chapter, which included the not-inconsequential task of building a presidential library. He and Nancy were especially excited about this new challenge. They wanted it to be the best. After a fashion, it, of course, was.

He ended his speech, this last one as president, with a good ol’ congratulations: “My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”

Not me, my, I, but we.

The speech had been drafted by several, including Peggy Noonan, but in the end it was all Reagan: romantic, straightforward, lyrical, poetic, full of common sense and idealistic.

Thank you, President Reagan. We may have done it — but we could not have done it without you.

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He has written four books on the 40th president, including the widely acclaimed “Rendezvous with Destiny,” a minute-by-minute account of the fight between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for the 1980 GOP nomination and their unlikely pairing at the party convention in Detroit, as well as the fall campaign and the stunning victory of Reagan and Bush. 

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