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Every four to eight years, it is very common for a man in a suit to place his hand on a bible in Washington D. C. and recite the following words: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and that, to the best of my ability, I will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.” This tradition dates back to 1789 and was started by George Washington. However, what is not very common is that, after taking the oath, the man in question gives one of the best speeches ever heard from the podium of the Capitol.
On January 20, 1981, it was Ronald Reagan who arrived in D. C. hand in hand with his wife, Nancy, wearing an elegant black suit, tie and gray vest, adorned with a white handkerchief in his left pocket. After comfortably defeating Jimmy Carter, he was ready to become the new “leader of the free world”. After the applause and the classic presidential song, he stepped to the podium and addressed the citizens for the first time as president.
Unbeknownst to him, he would give one of the most consequential presidential speeches in history. Perhaps, the right speech at the right time. For some, a gem that never loses its timelessness, despite the passing of the years.
Of course, he began with the formalities and acknowledgments, among which former President Carter himself stood out, whom Reagan congratulated for his role in the transfer of power, a protocol that the new president defined as “a miracle.” Then, like the most concise and precise of doctors, he identified the cause of the illness in question.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he exclaimed to general applause, in one of the most memorable moments of the speech. That was only the beginning, as there were another 15 minutes of delightful rhetoric to come.
“So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed,” continued the 40th president, who months later would suffer an assassination attempt that nearly ended his life.
The price of freedom and a warning to rivals
Once the diagnosis was complete, Reagan devoted many minutes to a word he himself defined years later as “the right to say no”: freedom. Indeed, to it, he attributed America’s historic success.
“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 men to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price,” he said.
“As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever,” he added in a clear message to his Soviet colleague.
The true heroes of their time
Reagan was also unhappy with this pessimistic vision, which put the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in the Cold War. Therefore, he invited his fellow citizens to enter a period of “national renewal”, where faith and hope would be revitalized.
To exemplify his point, he mocked those who claimed that there were no heroes in his time. He invited them to look at entrepreneurs, factory workers, and those who create jobs and opportunities. In short, he called heroes those who move the country forward.
“They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life,” he added.
America’s not-so-secret weapon
When it came to comparing himself with his adversaries of the time, he pinpointed, almost with surgeon’s precision, what differentiated the Americans from the Soviets. This tool was simply something they did not have, not physically, but spiritually.
“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have,” the former California governor reflected.
A soldier’s prayer, the letter that moved Reagan live on stage
This part of the speech is not tear-proof. Reagan himself could not contain the emotion. Radio professors say that nothing can be hidden in the voice and the new president broke down a couple of times as he read from the diary of Martin Treptow, a young soldier who died in World War I.
“We’re told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words: “America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone,'” the president was quoted as saying, visibly moved.
To close with a flourish, the new president called on Americans to “believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans,” he concluded.
The right speech at the right time
Reagan’s speech was simply the best thing that could have happened to America at the time. With his eloquent rhetoric and great charisma, he managed to captivate Americans and restore their hope that their best days were still ahead of them.
While it is well known that presidents do not write many of their speeches, the fear of Reagan’s writers was the president himself and his red pen. According to Peter Robinson himself, who wrote the Berlin Wall speech, the president was involved in writing all of his speeches. Moreover, if for some reason he didn’t have time, he would show up at the last minute with his red pen and revise every comma in the document.
With the time machine, we ask permission to define this speech with a phrase that Reagan himself used in his farewell in 1989, to sum up his administration. “All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”
Joaquín Núñez es licenciado en comunicación periodística por la Universidad Católica Argentina. Se especializa en el escenario internacional y en la política nacional norteamericana. Confeso hincha de Racing Club de Avellaneda. Contacto: [email protected] // Joaquín Núñez has a degree in journalistic communication from the Universidad Católica Argentina. He specializes in the international scene and national American politics. Confessed fan of Racing Club of Avellaneda. Contact: [email protected]