Tags: ronald reagan | farewell | address | shining city | speech | shirley

The Shining City Upon a Hill

The Shining City Upon a Hill

By    |   Friday, 11 January 2019 11:03 AM

Of the forty five presidents who have served in office, only fourteen have delivered statements which could be considered “Farewell Addresses.” We think of presidencies and their closing moments but it should be remembered these speeches have always been voluntary.

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of this speech: the Farewell Address of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.

The presidents who did prepare Farewell Addresses included George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Of those fourteen, only eleven were given as speeches; Washington, Jackson, and Andrew Johnson had theirs published, but never read them in a formal public address.

Of the remaining eleven, only seven were titled “Farewell Address” by the men who delivered them. Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson gave their farewells as State of the Union addresses, Bush Sr. gave a final speech at West Point that he never identified as a Farewell Address, and Nixon explicitly stated that his was not a farewell, but an “‘au revoir,’ we’ll see you again.” He made these remarks to the White House staff, just moments after resigning the presidency.

Of those seven presidents who delivered their Farewell Addresses as a public speech, even fewer made them memorable. Most were middling attempts to tout their successes in office and recontextualize their failures as a form of circuitous success. Oftentimes, it’s only brief passages and memorable lines that stand the test of time. Dwight Eisenhower made famous his warning about a “military-industrial complex” however, is remembered, mostly because of Oliver Stone’s controversial movie, JFK. Of those final seven delivered Farewell Addresses, only one is consistently invoked in its entirety.

It has quotable lines and soundbites, but it’s not remembered for its quotable lines or soundbites. It did more than make predictions about coming events or caution future generations of the challenges they would face, it articulated a vision of America, not one defined by borders or barriers, but by philosophy. That America was not a place but an idea: American exceptionalism was individual exceptionalism, made evident only in America.

As he waited that night in the Oval Office, Reagan was relaxed, even joking with the few who were present. Before the lights went on, he pointed out how the Resolute desk, having recently been restored, was darker; no one except him noticed it. Despite the cold January night, the French doors to the Rose Garden were partially open, bringing in fresh air. With just 30 seconds to go before broadcast, he joked, “Do I have time to make a phone call?” The staff, accustomed to Reagan’s easy humor, laughed. He blew his nose and took a sip of hot water to help clear his throat. Then he prayed for a moment before the broadcast began.

In many places the speech had some similarities to his other speeches. Like presidents before him, he spoke of his successes but he placed them at the feet of the American people, not himself. He conceded that he had failures, most notably the deficit, but spoke of how comforted he was knowing the “Reagan Revolution” had been there for him, the young men and women of the Reagan Revolution, including myself and my wife, Zorine, who’d come to Washington as foot soldiers in that revolution.

Reagan’s warnings of the future were not practical but philosophical; advocating for civic literacy and American history to be encouraged with young people. At every beat, even when noting the challenges to come, he spoke with hope. Finally, his true vision of America was revealed in the closing paragraphs. He had often invoked the “city upon a hill” in prior addresses and talks. He did so most prominently in his 1980 election night speech. For the first time though, in vivid detail, he described what he saw when he dreamt of that city:

“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.”

It’s remarkable that, after eight years in office, the hopes he had for the nation were almost identical to those he had when he first assumed it. Most presidents leave office with their hopes weathered and tempered: not Reagan. There are many who still dismiss Reagan as a great orator and little else. Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter who drafted some of Reagan’s farewell remarks once wrote that Reagan knew the title of “Great Communicator” was a backhanded compliment; Of the moniker, Reagan said in his final remarks to the nation, “It was bestowed in part by foes and in part to undercut the seriousness of his philosophy: ‘It’s not what he says, it’s how he says it. ‘He answered in his farewell address: ‘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.’”

During the 1980 campaign, the nickname was given to Reagan as a term of derision by Judy Bacharach of the old Washington Star, but Reaganites picked up that feather and stuck it in the hats and called it macaroni. Thereafter, Reagan has always been, “The Great Communicator.”

Following his address, he had a sip of champagne with the technicians, with whom he’d always been friendly. Then, Reagan walked out into the cold evening, heading toward the residence, heading, as always, towards the future.

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Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of this speech; the Farewell Address of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.
ronald reagan, farewell, address, shining city, speech, shirley
Friday, 11 January 2019 11:03 AM
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