The Gipper resonates 30 years later.
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Thirty years ago today it was a Tuesday. The weather in Washington, D.C. that day began with overcast but broke out in unusually warm 55-degree sunshine by noon.
With the west front of the Capitol behind him and over a half million people stretched out along the National Mall before him, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.
Reagan’s first inaugural was the first that I watched closely. I was an ambitious, newly appointed young sales manager for WFAA Radio in Dallas. I was keenly aware of how hard it had been in the previous couple of years to sell advertising. An advertising purchase is, at its core, an exercise in optimism. And with inflation running at more than 10 percent, interest rates near 20 percent, unemployment near eight percent, 52 American embassy personnel held captive by an outlaw regime in Iran for over a year while the U.S. was both helpless and feckless, and chronic shortages of gasoline leading to long lines and rationing; optimism was in short supply.
Thus I listened to President Reagan’s inaugural address with rapt attention. I was young and ambitious and anxious to succeed and I strongly believed that for me to prosper, something had to give. I was looking for the new president to give me a reason to be optimistic.
He did not disappoint.
Here are a couple of my favorite clips from the speech.
“From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.”
“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 man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.”
Reagan’s admirers called him the ‘Great Communicator’ and there is no question that he was good. He was so good that many conservatives persist in looking for a latter-day Reagan, a Gipper reincarnate.
Such yearning misses the point.
Reagan succeeded because of what he believed. Reagan’s administration was by no means perfect. But in the end, despite the Iran-Contra affair, despite being nearly 80 years old when he left office and despite eight years of withering criticism from the media and elite liberals, his belief in the American people, and his resulting desire to keep government out of their way, transcended.
Since Reagan, we’ve had two very charismatic communicators hold the office. The first departed from Reagan principles and got his head handed to him in the first midterm election of his administration. The same thing happened to the second one this past November.
The lesson for conservatives is clear. Charisma is great. Take it when you can get it. But stick to principles.
Principle matters above all else. It’s why we’re still talking about Ronald Reagan 30 years later.