January 11, 1989
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 spent 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
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--rediscovered
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.
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
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 of 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,'
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 call `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
because more competitive and at the same time, we summoned
the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad
instead of erecting them at home.
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
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 < i>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 by 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
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, windswept, 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
And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United
States of America.