[This article appeared in the April-May 1981 issue of The St. Croix Review, pp. 10-16.] 


A New Adjective: “Reaganesque”

The Inaugural Address 

Dwight D. Murphey


            He spoke humbly, but with manly force; directly, in the idiom of everyday speech, free of alliterations, conscious parallelisms, or the affectations of  reversed syntax—but with an imagery born of the occasion and the setting.

            It was President Ronald Reagan’s (first) inaugural address, January 20, 1981.  The setting broke with tradition, since it was the first time a new president had taken the oath of office on the west side of the capitol.  But the effect was to enhance our country’s large traditions.  As he spoke, the new president looked out on the long mall past the reflecting pool to the quiet reverence of the Lincoln Memorial, saw the eloquent spire of the Washington Monument, and was reminded of our civilization’s art and learning by the colossal structures of the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.  The speaker and his audience were reminded of the traditions of American freedom, and of both the sacrifices that have made that freedom possible and the lush bounty that Americans have reaped from it.

            When the speech was over, Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the House and long a champion in the lists of the opposition party, somewhat ungraciously characterized it as “simplistic.”  We have reason to think, however, that Reagan’s countrymen will prefer to remember it with a new adjective that will express in our national vocabulary the qualities of mixed gentleness and strength that the incoming president exemplified in the speech and brings to the office.  Americans will perhaps remember it as “Reaganesque.”

            At Berea College in Kentucky there was once, and there may still be, a series of lectures known as “The Last Lecture.”  The speakers have been asked to imagine that they are addressing the students for the last time, imparting to them a distillation of what is most important.  For our country, the inaugural addresses look forward, not backward; but they serve a similar purpose.  Like a wedding, each is an occasion of rejoicing and anticipation.  There have been many good ones.

            It is too soon to know, since it takes events to tell us whether words are to ring true or hollow; but I would tentatively rank Ronald Reagan’s as among the better ones.  I say this with an unabashed preference for straight-forwardness and popular eloquence.  Those who like oratory for bombast’s sake, or who want their president to personify the drumroll of a mighty imperium, will no doubt find much to prefer about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third inaugural address with its series of parallels, or about John F. Kennedy’s ringing, “Let the word go forth….”  I, for one, however, prefer those who set aside all that is sophomoric and who speak directly to the hearts of a nation of peers, as Reagan did.  As I read back through a book of the inaugural addresses I find similarities to the unaffected forcefulness of James Polk (a president the public should know better) and to the combined humility, down-to-earth religious expressiveness and strength of Dwight Eisenhower’s first inaugural.  Few of the addresses, including Reagan’s, match the ethereal poetry, though still earth-bound, of Lincoln’s second inaugural address or of Nixon’s first, which are perhaps the two best.  But as speeches go, Reagan’s is excellent. 

Political Concepts 

            Although the speech wasn’t long, there are a number of political, social and economic concepts that President Reagan touched on that are worth exploring.  When the Speaker of the House called the address “simplistic” he may just have chosen a poor way of observing that it was a statement of broad principle, as an inaugural address is bound to be.  Or he may have been giving vent to the prejudice that the intellectual culture of the recent past has felt toward every expression of conservative thought.  If it was the latter, his prejudice can only be overcome by an increased awareness of the profundity of those conservative “truisms” that Reagan articulated.

            1.  When Reagan said that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he was stating a conclusion that more and more Americans, including many members of the intellectual community, have come to hold.

            It is a conclusion that runs directly counter to the underlying premise of all modern liberal thinking during the twentieth century.  Naively, this body of thought has been confident that every identifiable human problem can be solved, or at least managed, by a federal governmental program.  This is a premise that is now demonstrably bankrupt.

            Conservatives of all types have long recognized this as a false and dangerous basis for conducting a government, but ironically it awaited the anti-Establishmentarian acids of the New Left a few years ago before the modern liberals’ almost reflexive faith in the beneficence and effectiveness of government was undermined.  When these acids were followed in the 1970s by the clear failure of government to unstick us from the mire of problems that have been created by, or made worse by, government itself, an amazing thing happened: more and more children along the parade route of life began tugging at their mothers’ skirts and saying, “Look! The emperor has no clothes!”

            2.  Over a century ago, the French economist Frederic Bastiat observed that socialist and welfare statist thought “seeks to play God with human beings.”

            The modern drive toward a paternalistic social order has resulted from the interplay of several factors.  High among them have been: (a) the existence of an alienated intellectual subculture with its inherent sense of moral superiority and faith in its own technical competence; (b) the desire by this intelligentsia during the past century and a half for an alliance with any disaffected or unassimilated group, an alliance that has given rise to an ideology and program that has offered aid to such groups as against the predominant culture; and (c) the resulting worldview that has looked on the main problems in society as having been entrapment and exploitation.

            There are many signs that this alliance and its worldview have been falling apart.  The election of Ronald Reagan is one of those signs.

            Reagan stated his opposition to the elitism that is inherent in paternalistic government when he asked, “If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”  His thinking here runs parallel to Jefferson’s.  I am not informed as to whether Reagan read Jefferson’s first inaugural address before writing his own, but Jefferson spoke to the same point: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself.  Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?”

            3.  President Reagan’s speech was not only opposed to the elitist premise that underlies paternalism; he expressed opposition also to the process involved in the intellectuals’ alliance with the have-nots.  Instead of an ideology and a politics that champions a multitude of special interest groups, he seeks the improvement of everyone’s situation through the success of the whole system.  “We hear much of special interest groups,” he said.  “Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected.  It knows no section boundaries, crosses ethnic and racial divisions and political party lines.  It is made up of… ‘We, the people.’  This breed called Americans.”

            This brings to mind the point that William Graham Sumner of Yale made a century ago when we wrote of “The Forgotten American”—the producer who goes about his daily business unsung, carrying his responsibilities without complaining and without anyone giving him assistance.  The liberalism of the nineteenth century, known now as classical liberalism, always advocating championing precisely that sort of person, thinking that in doing so the entire society would benefit.  Reagan is in this tradition.

            4.  The core of Reagan’s philosophy lies in what I have called “the vitalist perspective.”  Two centuries ago, Adam Smith and David Ricardo formulated the basic theory of how a market economy can indeed work, based on the vitality of millions of people who are interconnected through contract and the division of labor.  Their insights were soon countered by those who continued to advocate the mercantilist perspective: that everything would fall into chaos without the powerful hand of government.  Smith, Ricardo, and their successors, including especially the Austrian school of economics, answered these criticisms with such theories as Ricardo’s “Law of Comparative Cost” and “Say’s Law,” which continued to spell out the specifics of how a market system can work.     

            Again, Reagan’s speech reflects this classical liberal side of the argument.  He said that, “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 had ever been done before.”  Thus, he believes that mankind’s vitality lies in the efforts of the people themselves.  He does not look primarily to government as the great motor, despite government’s important role.  One of the great human problems, in Reagan’s thinking, has been that human vitality has often been repressed.  This is perhaps the central perception of classical liberalism’s view of the world.

            5.  In another passage of the address, he praised Americans as heroes in their daily work.  “Those who say we are in a time when there are no heroes—they just don’t know where to look.”  This puts him very soundly at odds with some important warpings in modern thought.  It also demonstrates the depth of his empathy, which is far greater than the majority of those who have long praised their own compassion and compared it favorably to the supposed “unfeelingness” of conservatism.

            One of the most delightful essays I have ever read is William James’ “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”  James told of a trip by carriage through a desolate countryside where corn-rows had been planted irregularly among the stumps of felled trees.  He told himself that it was a hideous place.  But when he stopped and talked with a farm wife, the realization came upon him that he had not seen the true human meaning of the stumps and the corn-rows.  To the people by whose sweat the trees had been felled and the corn planted, the scene was not one of hideousness, but of keen satisfaction and hope.  I think of this essay, with James’ brilliant empathy for the human meaning of everything people do, every time I hear someone, usually “liberal” and alienated, talk about the “uninspired life of the average Babbitt-like businessman” or “the sameness of all the little box-like houses along curved streets in suburbia.”  These complainers have never devoted a moment’s sensibility to the high personal adventure that someone goes through in opening, say, an ice cream store; or to the intensely individual lives of the specific couples who, as young marrieds, have scrimped to make the downpayment on one of those little “boxes,” behind which on their first child’s third birthday they have worked an afternoon putting up a new swing-set.  It makes absolutely no difference to those couples—sparkling, fresh young Americans—that everyone else is doing the same thing.  Tip O’Neill said that Reagan’s speech as “simplistic,” but to me Reagan’s awareness of human meaning harks back to the profundity of William James.  It is all of the empty neuroticism of modern word-making that is truly simplistic.

            Reagan’s praise of the heroes of peaceable, productive life has nothing in common with the blood-and-thunder militaristic hero-worship of so many nineteenth century anti-bourgeois thinkers, nor with the war-like heroism of the German National Socialists years ago.  But Reagan’s thinking does recognize the heroic features that occur in civilized life, and in this he is out of harmony with the “anti-hero” genre of modern literature.  The cult of the anti-hero (which we see, for example, in Catch 22, The Graduate and Reflections in a Golden Eye) has received its impetus from the alienated intellectuals’ desire, in their rivalry with the acting man, to debunk everything about successful “doers”; and from the intellectuals’ alliance with the have-nots, which has given rise to a central worldview that the average man is trapped and made less than responsible by forces beyond his control.  The anti-hero is part of the ideology of the Left—and Reagan will have no part of it.

            6.  We can see from Reagan’s address that the word “liberty” is to be reinstated as part of our national vocabulary.  Part of the semantics of modern political discourse has been that the Left speaks of “civil liberties.”  This breaks off economic freedom, which the Left considers at odds with “human rights” (we all recall the cliché about “human rights versus property rights”).  Liberals in the classic nineteenth century sense have continued to speak of “liberty,” by which they have meant an overall system of a free society based on a market economy.  Reagan speaks again in those terms.

            7.  During the past fifteen years, the “do-your-own-thing” pseudo-libertarianism of the New Left has combined, in the thinking of many erstwhile “conservatives,” with a yearning for a reductionist doctrinal purity and perhaps for personal withdrawal from the country’s mainstream of intellectual discourse, which has understandably been unbearable to many.  This has resulted in a major “anarcho-capitalist” movement, which says it wants a market economy but no government.

            When he said, “So there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government,” President Reagan was making clear his own philosophical separation from any anarchist vision.

            8.  I was surprised by the form, but not the content, of the new president’s statement that “all of us need to be reminded [that] the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.”  It is to be supposed that he meant no more than to repeat the usual classical liberal desire to decentralize governmental functions as much as is feasible, and in doing so to revitalize the states after many years of their becoming mere administrative arms of national policy.  But the precise wording was perhaps a bit unfortunate, since it put President Reagan on Hayne’s side in the old semantical debate between Webster and Hayne, a debate that Webster is almost universally regarded as having won.  Hayne argued that the states had created the federal government; Webster argued that the people had created it, albeit acting through ratifying conventions called by the states.  This is a metaphysical distinction that modern philosophers would be inclined to say, correctly, is meaningless and purely verbal.  It is almost certain that Reagan did not intend to immerse himself in it.  But it is mildly unfortunate that neither he nor any of his advisors realized the historical significance of his wording.

            9.  When Reagan looked ahead to a stronger American role in world affairs and to the revitalization of American military power by saying that, “We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so, we have the best chance of never having to use that strength,” he signaled an end to the national withdrawal of the post-Vietnam years.  The guilty self-apologies that formed the major premise behind the giving away of the Panama Canal and the Carter policies in Africa are not a part of Reagan’s psychology.  This means a wholesome reorientation of some of the most distorted perceptions in our national thinking of the recent past.  With gentle manliness he has reaffirmed a justifiable faith in the rightness of our own cause. 

Social Concepts 

            It is somewhat artificial to separate social concepts from the types of ideas we have been discussing, but his speech raised some that may best be considered in that category:

            1.  There is an egalitarian thrust in Reagan’s remarks.  He spoke disparagingly of “government by an elite group,” and he included all races, religions and economic levels in his call for a “growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.”

            But this is the egalitarianism of the classical liberal “equal freedom under law,” not the pandering type of egalitarianism of the spend-and-elect politician or the alliance-seeking intelligentsia.  Nor is it a form of “populism” in the negative connotations of that word, since there is nothing in Reagan’s speech or in the movement that he leads that has any special appeal to the vulgar or the ignorant.  His is the equality of the American dream.  This sort of equality offers no offense to the finest values, while at the same time it is not too much to say that in the perspective of world history it is revolutionary in its implications.

            2.  Reagan plainly feels that Americans have had their dauber down and are in need of a “national renewal”—a “New Beginning.”  But he expresses his confidence in the underlying soundness of our people.

            He could hardly feel otherwise.  He is an active man and a leader, and accordingly he is not mentally set in the direction of Spenglerian despair.  Besides, he believes in the efficacy of precisely the “vitalist perspective” I have mentioned earlier in this commentary.

            This is, however, the one ingredient that we might agree is intellectually simplistic, even though understandably so.  Our civilization has been torn by neurotic (sometimes psychotic) self-lacerations for reasons that have gone deeper than just too much governmental intervention.  If we look deeply into the radical core of modern life we can see all the residuals of that cosmic immaturity that still grips a civilization in the early stages of its development (and here we are taking a perspective that sweeps over tens of thousands of years, as LaBruyere once did).  And we can identify the markings of existential lostness, in which modern peoples have cast about for self-definition.  To these factors must be added again the effects of the massive division within modern times between the men of words and the men of action.  This division has caused modern history to twitch with a social palsy just as the human body twitches if there is a lack of synchronization between its muscles and its mind.

            If Reagan is to err, though, it is better that he oversimplify in favor of hope and renewal than that he err by overstressing spiritual flaws.  To criticize him for his confidence in Americans would be to demand too much from him, and too little.  He doesn’t come before us as an introspective brooder, even though there is a vital place for that; he comes as one who offers us a chance to build on what is best within ourselves.

            3.  A critique of his address ought not to conclude without noticing his underlying commitment to a renewal of values.  When he praised the productive Americans, he said that “their values sustain our national life.”  “Values”… how good it is to hear that word spoken once again.

            4.  Nor would we want to conclude without acknowledging the strength of his commitment to religion as part of American life.  It seemed like a simple thing for him to have called for making each inaugural day a national day of prayer.  Those who place this within the context of the Supreme Court’s “school prayer” decision and of the agitations of some for an extreme separation of government from any expression of religious sensibility will, however, realize that there was a certain boldness in Reagan’s call.  It is as if he were saying, “I have heard what they have said; but they are wrong.  This is a new day, and we will proceed unabashedly with the older verities.”  It would be a mistake to conclude from this that he does not hold to the old liberal value, which Jefferson held so dear, of a basic separation of church and state.  But he is through with the extremism that cannot understand balance.

            With these and many other things in mind, I would like to be counted among those who thought it was a great speech.