By Vince Haley, National Review
The Great Communicator laid out a renewed American vision at the university.
On May 17, four months into his presidency, Barack Obama will travel to South Bend, Ind., to deliver the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. Twenty-eight years to the day, another popular agent of change, four months into his presidency, did the same. (Text here; video here.)
In a presidency full of extraordinary oratory, Reagan’s “Source of All Strength” speech at Notre Dame stands out as one of his very best, even if it is not among his best-known.
By now, the heralded Obama communications team will have read and unpacked Reagan’s Notre Dame address. The speechwriters undoubtedly understand the height of the bar Reagan set and the imperative to fashion a message of similar scope, vision, and connectedness to the American creed. Clearing that bar will lead to comparisons with Reagan’s ability. Failing to clear it will preserve the distinction of the Great Communicator.
In 1981, America was faced with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Unemployment was 7.5 percent and rising; inflation ran at 10 percent; and mortgage rates hit 16.6 percent. Abroad, the Soviet Union forcibly occupied Afghanistan and was busy expanding its influence in Africa and Central America. At home, Americans had been told by their previous president in what became known as the “malaise speech” that America was suffering a “crisis of confidence” and a “crisis of the spirit” and that there was “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” President Carter glumly told the nation that the “erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
Reagan promised change.
In his inaugural address, Reagan presented an eloquent vision for economic recovery, renewing the American spirit, and defending America against the enemies of freedom. He famously declared, “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”
Four months later he would speak at “Our Lady” — Notre Dame — in the most extraordinary of circumstances. In addition to domestic and international crises, two dramatic events had recently occurred that added poignancy and meaning to Reagan’s remarks. The audience hearing him that day knew of these events and was filled with the kind of anticipation that comes from knowing you are a witness to history unfolding: On March 30, 1981, a deranged gunman shot and almost killed President Reagan outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. On May 13, 1981, just four days before Reagan went to Notre Dame, another would-be assassin shot and almost killed Pope John Paul II in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square.
When the news of the papal assassination attempt reached me, I was a freshman at Bishop Ireton Catholic High School in Alexandria, Va. My algebra teacher — the tall, thin, quiet, and painfully shy Mr. Reynolds — started class talking about the attempt on the life of the pope. Moved to tears, Mr. Reynolds tried to find words to express his bewilderment at a world seemingly coming apart. There must have been millions across America who, like Mr. Reynolds, feared that our country, our culture, and our security were teetering on the brink.
For only two years now — since the publication of The Reagan Diaries — have we known what President Reagan’s thoughts were in the immediate aftermath of the attempt on his life. Reagan wrote in his diary on April 11, 1981:
Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.
I opened my eyes once to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.
All the kids arrived and the hours ran together in a blur during which I was operated on. I know it’s going to be a long recovery but there has been such an outpouring of love from all over.
The days of therapy, transfusion, intravenous, etc. have gone by — now it is Sat. April 11 and this morning I left the hospital and am here at the W.H. with Nancy and Patti. The treatment, the warmth, the skill of those at G.W. has been magnificent but it’s great to be here at home.
Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.
What did Reagan think four weeks later when he heard the news that the pope had been shot?
John Paul II had been shot on the Feast of our Lady of Fatima, a major day of remembrance celebrated by the Catholic Church. This Catholic feast day marks the appearance by Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The children are understood to have received very specific messages during these apparitions, including praying the Rosary daily for the conversion of Russia.
The pope himself had had all his life a special devotion to Mary (his coat of arms was a simple cross with “M” in the lower right corner) which made the attempt on the pope’s life on this day — and his survival on this day — take on special meaning. (The pope would later credit Mary for “guiding this bullet” and saving his life. He traveled twice on the anniversary of the assassination attempt to the Shrine at Fatima to give thanks. The bullet that almost killed the pope is now in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima at the shrine.)
Did Reagan know and consider these things as he prepared his first address to the students at the Catholic Notre Dame University since being shot himself?
If these things didn’t go through Reagan’s mind then, it surely causes one to pause today with 28 years of hindsight. Knowing today what Ronald Reagan and John Paul II did for expanding freedom and peace in the world during the 1980s, can one be faulted for thinking that the tide of evil in the late 20th century reached its high-water mark on May 13, 1981? On a day that recalled Our Lady of Fatima’s urging prayer for the conversion of Russia, the pope survived an attempt on his life that was almost certainly ordered by the leadership of the former Soviet Union.
It is in this historical context that President Reagan steps to the lectern to thundering applause from the Notre Dame graduates.
What will he say? Will he give them a speech devoted to economic and foreign policy, as President Carter had done four years before?
Reagan starts off by talking about football — which is almost as dear to the heart of any normal Notre Damer as the golden dome with its statue of the Virgin Mary. Specifically, Reagan reminisces about the movie Knute Rockne, All American, which he had played the role of George Gipp, who told Notre Dame’s Coach Rockne from his death bed that he should ask his players to “win one for the Gipper.” But Reagan isn’t here to talk about Hollywood. In a moving transition, Reagan declares, “There will come times in the lives of all of us when we’ll be faced with causes bigger than ourselves, and they won’t be on a playing field.”
Understanding the power of great theatre, Reagan, having engaged the students with his entertaining storytelling, now has their attention as he skillfully moves to deliver the most basic lesson of American identity:
This nation was born when a band of men, the Founding Fathers, a group so unique we’ve never seen their like since, rose to such selfless heights. Lawyers, tradesmen, merchants, farmers — 56 men achieved security and standing in life but valued freedom more. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Sixteen of them gave their lives. Most gave their fortunes. All preserved their sacred honor.
They gave us more than a nation. They brought to all mankind for the first time the concept that man was born free, that each of us has inalienable rights, ours by the grace of God, and that government was created by us for our convenience, having only the powers that we choose to give it. This is the heritage that you’re about to claim as you come out to join the society made up of those who have preceded you by a few years, or some of us by a great many.
From football to the Founding Fathers, Reagan is reliving with the students the American anamnesis. Reagan is at the same time retelling and living out with the graduates a new chapter in America’s story.
He then describes the current economic crisis and what he is going to do about it:
We’re troubled today by economic stagnation, brought on by inflated currency and prohibitive taxes and burdensome regulations. The cost of stagnation in human terms, mostly among those least equipped to survive it, is cruel and inhuman.
Now, after those remarks, don’t decide that you’d better turn your diploma back in so you can stay another year on the campus. I’ve just given you the bad news. The good news is that something is being done about all this because the people of America have said, “Enough already.” You know, we who had preceded you had just gotten so busy that we let things get out of hand. We forgot that we were the keepers of the power, forgot to challenge the notion that the state is the principal vehicle of social change, forgot that millions of social interactions among free individuals and institutions can do more to foster economic and social progress than all the careful schemes of government planners.
Well, at last we’re remembering, remembering that government has certain legitimate functions which it can perform very well, that it can be responsive to the people, that it can be humane and compassionate, but that when it undertakes tasks that are not its proper province, it can do none of them as well or as economically as the private sector.
At many graduations, a commencement speaker will often fail to speak directly to the students. Not so with Reagan at Notre Dame. He speaks to them in direct and earnest language, and in doing so, he speaks to the heart of a nation:
We need you. We need your youth. We need your strength. We need your idealism to help us make right that which is wrong. Now, I know that this period of your life, you have been and are critically looking at the mores and customs of the past and questioning their value. Every generation does that. May I suggest, don’t discard the time-tested values upon which civilization was built simply because they’re old. More important, don’t let today’s doomcriers and cynics persuade you that the best is past, that from here on it’s all downhill.
Reagan is engaged in a determined effort to remind Americans of who they are and why America’s “experiment in man’s relation to man” has been so successful for more than two centuries. Reagan’s speech is making clear that he sees the renewal of America — of its economy, civic spirit, and its courage to be free — in a return to first principles. And he isn’t finished yet.
As if to underscore what would happen once America rededicated itself to its founding ideals and first principles, Reagan says:
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. It won’t bother to denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
Aside from President Reagan, few national figures were speaking about American life like this in 1981. Fewer still talk like this today. Although he does not describe it in these words, Reagan next turns his attention to the spiritual battle between good and evil and appeals to the citizens of the United States to engage in a “great climatic struggle for the human spirit.”
William Faulkner, at a Nobel Prize ceremony some time back, said man would “not only endure: he will prevail” against the modern world because he will return to “the old verities and truths of the heart.” And then Faulkner said of man, “He is immortal because he alone among creatures . . . has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
One can’t say those words — compassion, sacrifice, and endurance — without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love. It was Pope John Paul II who warned in last year’s encyclical on mercy and justice against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice. He said, “In the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights.”
For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show to the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values, are not — like the ideology and war machine of totalitarian societies — just a facade of strength. It is time for the world to know our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.
“It is time for the world to know our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.” Could an American president issue such a call today for America to dare show the world that the source of all strength is a belief in a Supreme Being and a law higher than our own? And how often does it happen today that, in the name of an alleged justice, one of God’s children is destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty, or stripped of fundamental human rights? Is our government capable today of even condemning such an injustice?
Reagan closes his address with timeless words of hope about the future of America rooted in its truths and traditions:
My hope today is that in the years to come — and come it shall — when it’s your time to explain to another generation the meaning of the past and thereby hold out to them their promise of the future, that you’ll recall the truths and traditions of which we’ve spoken. It is these truths and traditions that define our civilization and make up our national heritage. And now, they’re yours to protect and pass on.
I have one more hope for you: When you do speak to the next generation about these things, that you will always be able to speak of an America that is strong and free, to find in your hearts an unbounded pride in this much-loved country, this once and future land, this bright and hopeful nation whose generous spirit and great ideals the world still honors.
Reagan’s “Source of All Strength” speech at Notre Dame was a moving restatement of the American creed that is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. Reagan said what he said at Notre Dame because he was serious about the ideas of the American creed and their power to shape events. Indeed, it was Reagan’s disciplined approach throughout his presidency to the ideas of natural rights, consent of the governed, safety, liberty, and limited government that restored America’s civic spirit, delivered a booming economy, and set the Soviet Union on a course for peaceful dissolution.
At the outset of his presidency, President Reagan defined the source of American strength as a belief in a Supreme Being and a law higher than our own. At Notre Dame, a Catholic university, these words of Reagan as well as his pro-life policies matched the core convictions of his hosts. In contrast, President Obama’s pro-choice policies are antithetical to the Catholic Church’s most basic teaching on the sanctity of human life, which makes Obama’s choice to accept an invitation to speak at a Catholic university most peculiar. Aside from the controversy over the president of Notre Dame’s decision to extend an invitation, President Obama should have been quite aware that his acceptance would cause — and has caused — division and confusion within the largest religious community in the United States.
During his first trip to Europe last week, President Obama said there were times when America “has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward Europe. During his first trip to Europe in June 1982, President Reagan rose above such pandering and instead focused on rallying the Europeans and everyone else to the cause of human freedom.
Will these same contrasts be on display at Notre Dame this May 17? President Reagan’s 1981 address at Notre Dame articulated the ideas and priorities that would animate eight years of a successful presidency. President Obama should view his speech next month as an opportunity and challenge to do the same.
Vince Haley is vice president for research and policy at American Solutions for Winning the Future and associate producer of the new documentary film Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny.
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