This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office
and the last. We’ve been together 8 years now, and soon it’ll be time
for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of
which I’ve been saving for a long time.
It’s been the honor of my life to be your
President. So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks,
but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the
opportunity you gave us to serve.
One of the things about the Presidency is that you’re always
somewhat apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car
someone else is driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass —
the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and
couldn’t return. And so many times I wanted to stop and reach out from
behind the glass, and connect. Well, maybe I can do a little of that
People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, “parting
is such sweet sorrow.” The sweet part is California and the ranch and
freedom. The sorrow — the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is
the part of the White House where the President and his family live.
There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand
and look out of early in the morning. 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.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window.
I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 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 eighties, 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.”
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who
wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it,
neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the
1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the
past few years the world again — and in a way, we ourselves —
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
The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow
summits, from the recession of ’81 to ’82, to the expansion that began
in late ’82 and continues to this day, we’ve made a difference. 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.
Something that happened to me a few years ago reflects some of
this. It was back in 1981, and I was attending my first big economic
summit, which was held that year in Canada. The meeting place rotates
among the member countries. The opening meeting was a formal dinner for
the heads of government of the seven industrialized nations. Now, I sat
there like the new kid in school and listened, and it was all Francois
this and Helmut that. They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a
first-name basis. Well, at one point I sort of leaned in and said, “My
name’s Ron.” Well, in that same year, we began the actions we felt
would ignite an economic comeback — cut taxes and regulation, started
to cut spending. And soon the recovery began.
Two years later, another economic summit with pretty much the same cast.
At the big opening meeting we all got together, and all of a sudden,
just for a moment, I saw that everyone was just sitting there looking at
me. And then one of them broke the silence. “Tell us about the
American miracle,” he said.
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.” 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.
Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something,
the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates,
and the people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a
plant that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger.
Our economic program brought about the longest peacetime expansion in
our history: real family income up, the poverty rate down,
entrepreneurship booming, and an explosion in research and new
technology. We’re exporting more than ever because American industry
became more competitive and at the same time, we summoned the national
will to knock down protectionist walls abroad instead of erecting them
Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace,
we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion.
So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we toasted the new
peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the superpowers actually
begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons — and hope for even
more progress is bright — but the regional conflicts that rack the
globe are also beginning to cease. The Persian Gulf is no longer a war
zone. The Soviets are leaving Afghanistan. The Vietnamese are preparing to pull out of Cambodia, and an American-mediated accord will soon send 50,000 Cuban troops home from Angola.
The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we’re a
great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way.
But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in
ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we
learned: Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it
will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.
Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free
speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the
great rediscovery of the 1980’s has been that, lo and behold, the moral
way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the
profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
When you’ve got to the point when you can celebrate the
anniversaries of your 39th birthday you can sit back sometimes, review
your life, and see it flowing before you. For me there was a fork in the
river, and it was right in the middle of my life. I never meant to go
into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. But I was raised
to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you. I
was happy with my career in the entertainment world, but I ultimately
went into politics because I wanted to protect something precious.
Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that
truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We
the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it
doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the
car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast.
Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments
tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a
document in which “We the People” tell the
government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This
belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do
these past 8 years.
But back in the 1960’s, when I began, it
seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things — that
through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the
government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more
of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say,
“Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a
citizen to do.
I think we have stopped a lot of what
needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man
is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and
effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As
government expands, liberty contracts.
Nothing is less free than pure communism — and yet we have,
the past few years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet
Union. I’ve been asked if this isn’t a gamble, and my answer is no
because we’re basing our actions not on words but deeds. The detente of
the 1970’s 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.
Well, this time, so far, it’s different. President Gorbachev
has brought about some internal democratic reforms and begun the
withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names
I’ve given him every time we’ve met.
But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small
incidents. Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I
decided to break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the
shops on Arbat Street —
that’s a little street just off Moscow’s main shopping area. Even
though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately
recognized us and called out our names and reached for our hands. We
were just about swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the
possibilities in all that joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed
their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the
crowd. It was an interesting moment. It reminded me that while the man
on the street in the Soviet Union yearns for peace, the government is
Communist. And those who run it are Communists, and that means we and
they view such issues as freedom and human rights very differently.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work
together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that
President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think
he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix
them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the
Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less
threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new
closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we
will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in
a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches.
If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still
play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid
to see what you see.
I’ve been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit
is one. I’ve been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight
isn’t for arguments, and I’m going to hold my tongue. But an
observation: I’ve had my share of victories in the Congress, but what
few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn’t win for me.
They never saw my troops, they never saw
Reagan’s regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every
call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is
still needed. If we’re to finish the job, Reagan’s regiments will have
to become the Bush brigades. Soon he’ll be the chief, and he’ll need you
every bit as much as I did.
Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential
farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But
oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the
past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new
patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much,
and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good
enough job teaching our children what America is and what she
represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35
or so years of age grew up in a different America.
We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we
absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of
its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you
got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who
fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio.
Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else
failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The
movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea
that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.
But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America
is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who
create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the
style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America
is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of
enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion
but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle
was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago
on the 40th anniversary of D – day, I read a letter from a young woman
writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy
did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, 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 let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America
begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope
the talking begins. And children, 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.
And that’s about all I have to say
tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that
window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.”
The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America
he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early
Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call
a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a
home that would be free.
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 8 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.
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 8 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.
And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Note: The President spoke at 9:02 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television.