Please enjoy the first half of this episode from it was said, the latest documentary podcast series from Jon Meacham and see 13 originals.
This episode brings the farewell address of Ronald Reagan to life and shares the context of the speech in our history and the impact it still carries today and will for generations to come.
The entire episode and full season of it was said, is now available for free on Apple podcasts and wherever you listen to shows.
Or three to. At 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time on the winter Wednesday of January 11th, 1989, Ronald Reagan, less than a month shy of his seventieth birthday, sat down to deliver his third, fourth and final Oval Office speech to the American people. A farewell address. My fellow Americans, this is the third or fourth time I'll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We've been together eight 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.
At the time the speech was noted for its characteristic eloquence, Reagan had, after all, catapulted to political fame a quarter century before in 1964 with a television address on behalf of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, known ever after in conservative circles as simply the speech. The farewell address of 1989, though, was seen as little more than a grace note to a long and largely popular presidency. History, however, has a wonderful way of changing how we view things in real time, people and events that are dismissed or derided can come to look better and loom larger.
In retrospect, Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, for instance, or presidents whose stature has grown since they left the White House. Conversely, Woodrow Wilson's historical stock has fallen amid renewed attention to his views on race and civil liberties. The sophisticated term for this phenomenon is revisionism, but it can also be understood as commonsensical since we should know that snap judgments are not always the right judgments. Humility, too, ought to teach us that there's always more to learn.
And the past, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, can serve as a lantern on the stern, shedding light on the route we've traveled. I've spoken of a 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 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.
I'm Jon Meacham, and this is it was said Episode five, Ronald Reagan's farewell address.
When he was running for president, a lot of notables in the press thought he was just not that smart. He was shallow, he was an actor. He was just faking it. That was so the American people so took to his optimism and his message and his personality that it was hard not to like the guy. He was the first president since John Kennedy that a lot of Americans actually loved. And they loved getting up in the morning knowing that Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States.
Given the forty fifth president's persistent anti-immigration posture and policies, the Reagan farewell address deserves reconsideration and merits elevation, I believe, to the ranks of the closing words of George Washington, who warned against foreign entanglements and the destructive spirit of party, and of Dwight Eisenhower, who advised Americans to beware of the military industrial complex. To begin with, the Reagan speech is reflective and honest about the nature of the presidency, about what it's really like to sit behind that desk.
And after all, reflection and candor are in vanishingly short supply in the life of the incumbent. President Reagan told the country. 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 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 tonight. By acknowledging the distance between the people and the powerful, Reagan closed it, bringing his listeners into his orbit in rather the way his old hero, Franklin Roosevelt used to do with his fireside chats.
Neither Reagan nor FDR turned red in the face or bullied or blustered.
They spoke to us neighbor to neighbor, affirming the nature of self-government. And Reagan's speech is modest determinedly. So I've been asked if I have any regrets.
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.
No, I alone can fix it for the Gipper, the words composed by the Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who consulted closely with President Reagan in those closing weeks of his reign, are as different in spirit and in substance from Donald Trump's as words could be and still be rendered in the same tongue. Reagan invoked the Puritan John Winthrop, who in 16 30, drew on Jesus's Sermon on the Mount when speaking of America as a city upon a hill. That's manifestly not how President Trump sees it from his announcement speech allusion to rapists coming in from Mexico to his lament about American carnage to his manufacturing of a crisis at the border that requires a wall.
The 44th president has long spoken in the vernacular of darkness, not of light, of exclusion, not of inclusion and whatever his faults. And he had many. Ronald Reagan believed in the possibilities of a country that was forever reinventing itself.
He knew, too, that the nation had grown stronger.
The more widely it had opened its arms, and the more generously it had interpreted Thomas Jefferson's assertion of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Ladies and gentlemen, Ronald Reagan that evening, I'm here tonight to announce my intention to seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States. I'm sure that each of us has seen our country from a number of viewpoints, depending on where we've lived and what we've done. For me, it's been as a boy growing up in several small towns in Illinois, as a young man in Iowa trying to get a start in the years of the Great Depression.
And later in California, for most of my adult life, I've seen America from the stadium press box as a sportscaster, as an actor, officer of my labor union soldier officeholder and as both Democrat and Republican.
The rise and reign of the mysterious and elusive Ronald Reagan is one of the great American sagas suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Toward the end in the late 1990s, Reagan could only remember the beginning. As his memory faded, the decade seemed to fall away. The presidency, the governorship, Hollywood sportscasting. Among his sharpest recollections was his youth in Illinois in chats with guests in his Los Angeles office and in bits of conversation with his family at home in Bel Air, Reagan would talk about learning to read newspapers on the front porch with his mother about playing with his older brother Neil, about setting off for the picture perfect little campus of Eureka College.
And there were his early days on the Rock River, where he swam in the summers and ice skated in the winter. A picture of the river hung in his retirement office in Century City, and visitors would ask him about it again and again.
He would tell the story. You know, that's where I used to be a lifeguard. I saved 77 lives. There had been a log, he went on, where he carved a notch for every swimmer he rescued. It was obviously an important part of his life, something he cherished. An aide recalled being a lifeguard was ever present in his memory. The image lingered when everything else was disappearing.
The lifeguard would grow up to seduce and shape America when Reagan became president in January 1981. The country was suffering from what his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, described as a crisis of confidence. After triumph in World War two and the boom of the 1950s, postwar American optimism seemed to peak just before John F.. Kennedy's assassination. After Dallas came Vietnam and Watergate. On Carter's watch, inflation spiked. Deficits soared. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And Islamic militants took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage in Iran.
Syria's people began to wonder whether the presidency was too big a job for any one person.
We've never made progress in this country in the last 200, four years by weakness or cowardice about avoiding an issue just because it was difficult. And when we face the energy problem and when we tried to do something about high interest rates, we try to do something about inflation or unemployment or trade. That's not a sign of weakness.
It's a sign of strength. So don't be concerned about the United States of America.
Then along came Ronald Reagan, nearly 70, the emotionally distant son of an alcoholic Midwestern shoe salesman and a pious theatrical mother, a former movie actor who gave his only critically acclaimed performance before Pearl Harbor. He was a sunny Californian who amiably ducked his head while talking tough on bureaucracy at home and on communism abroad, pushing the nation's political conversation to the right.
We must put an end to the arrogance of a federal establishment which accepts no blame for our condition, cannot be relied upon to give us a fair estimate of our situation and utterly refuses to live within its means. I will not accept the supposed wisdom which has it that the federal bureaucracy has become so powerful that it can no longer be changed or controlled by any administration. As president, I would use every power at my command to make the federal establishment respond to the will and the collective wishes of the people.
We must force the entire federal bureaucracy to live in the real world of reduced spending, streamline function and accountability to the people it serves. In the White House, Reagan proved a maddeningly contradictory figure, an eloquent advocate of traditional values, he divorced his first wife and was often estranged from his children, a fierce advocate of balanced budgets. He never proposed one. A dedicated anti-communist, he reached out to the Soviet Union and helped end the Cold War. An icon of buttoned down morality, he led an administration beleaguered by scandals, a man capable of nuanced thinking.
He strongly believed in Armageddon.
You never get the feeling sometimes that if we don't do it now, if we let this be another Sodom and Gomorrah, but maybe we might be the generation that sees Armageddon.
He mangled facts, caricatured welfare recipients, opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the county where three civil rights workers had been murdered for trying to overthrow Jim Crow.
Presided over a dark recession in 1982, 83 seemed uncaring about the emerging HIV AIDS crisis and in the Iran-Contra scandal, came perilously close to and may have committed impeachable offenses.
My fellow Americans, I've thought long and often about how to explain to you what I intended to accomplish. But I respect you too much to make excuses. The fact of the matter is that there's nothing I can say that would make the situation right. I was stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray. Reagan then should have been a divisive politician, a man about whom the nation was closely and bitterly split. And while many people were consistently critical of him, Reagan still left office with a 63 percent approval rating.
The roots of our own ages attack politics and ideological divisions lie in the Reagan years. Yet the man himself seemed to dwell just above the arena, escaping widespread political immunity. What was the secret? His personal gifts were enormous and helped smooth the rough edges of his rhetoric and of his policies.
I look back and think that as a reporter, I will never again cover a presidential candidate who won 44 states in his first election. Forty nine in his reelection.
This is the long time ABC News correspondent Ann Compton.
Ronald Reagan told us after his birthday. After his second inaugural, we said, Mr. President, what would you like for your birthday? He said Minnesota would be nice. The one state he lost the American people.
So took to his optimism and his message and his personality that it was hard for reporters not to like the guy on a very personal level. Ronald Reagan on a one on one basis was incredibly generous and not only to strangers, he would write them checks when he heard of a hard luck case. I lay in a hospital bed on one of the busiest days of Ronald Reagan's presidency. The American embassy in Beirut had been blown up that our CIA section wiped out.
And I'm lying in a hospital bed in Washington, D.C., watching all of this on television and the phone rings. And it's President Reagan saying congratulations on the birth of your little daughter. And then I couldn't get him off the phone. There was a sense that he seemed to enjoy personal contact, whether it's the press or the general public.
Reagan was witty, eloquent and bold, wheeled into the operating room after being shot in the chest on March 30th, 1981, the president looked up at the doctors and murmured, Please tell me you're all Republicans coming to you. After the surgery, he whispered to Nancy, Honey, I forgot to duck at the Brandenburg Gate in nineteen eighty seven, he stood in the heart of divided Berlin and cried, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. And eventually it was gone when he left the presidency in 1989, the Soviet Union was on its way to what Reagan had called the ash heap of history. The American economy, though riven with deficits, hummed. He felt more at home in the White House than any president since FDR. His uncommon public grace and mastery of television in which he had made his living long before he entered politics, largely redefined the role of chief executive.
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 good byes, 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. But 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 eight 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 80s 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, freed a man, a small moment with a big meaning a moment. The sailor who wrote it in the letter couldn't get out of his mind. And when I saw it, neither could I. For the rest of this episode and the entire 10 episode season of it was said, which includes a deeper look at historic speeches from John Lewis, John F. Kennedy, Barbara Jordan, Edward R. Murrow, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and more.
Please listen and subscribe for free on Apple podcasts and wherever you get your show's.