On the final night of the Republican National Convention of 1976 in Kansas City, Ronald Reagan was invited by Gerald Ford to come to the podium to give some final remarks that closed the convention. Lately, as I’ve tried to make sense of all that seems to be happening here and abroad, my mind continues to return to those final remarks delivered almost 39 years ago:
…I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our Tricentenial….Then I tried to write—let your own minds turn to that task. You are going to write for people a hundred years from now, who know all about us. We know nothing of them. We don’t know what kind of a world they will be living in…And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here. Will they look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now 100 years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction’[.] And, if we failed, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom, and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it. This is our challenge; and this is why here in this hall tonight, better than we have ever done before, we have got to quit talking to each other about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we have ever been, but we carry a message they are waiting for….There is no substitute for victory, Mr. President.
It didn’t take 100 years to know what happened when America met that challenge in the 1980s. Pope John Paul II may have summarized the result as eloquently as anyone during his address to the UN in 1995:
The revolutions of 1989 were made possible by the commitment of brave men and women inspired by a different, and ultimately more profound and powerful vision: the vision of man as a creature of intelligence and free will, immersed in a mystery which transcends his own being and endowed with the ability to reflect and the ability to choose—and thus capable of wisdom and virtue. A decisive factor in the success of those non-violent revolutions was the experience of social solidarity: In the face of regimes backed by the power of propaganda and terror, that solidarity was the moral code of the—power of the powerless, a beacon of hope and an enduring reminder that it is possible for man’s historical journey to follow a path which is true to the finest aspirations of the human spirit.
Sadly, we have squandered so much of what was accomplished by the “brave men and women,” including Reagan, who the Pope described. Today, while still facing the perennial problems caused by the under-education, underemployment and over-incarceration of too many of our neighbors, so many of the positive accomplishments of that generation seem to be unraveling both here and abroad. It is time for the adults among us to finally say, “Enough is enough!” …“to quit talking to each other about each other” … and to go out and do the hard work of rebuilding a functional federal system at home, and a stable world abroad. If we don’t change the trajectory of the course we are on, our children and grandchildren will pay dearly for our descent into madness, and those people in 2076 will not forgive us for squandering the legacy of their birthright as American citizens.
Much has been written about President Obama’s desire to be remembered as the left’s Ronald Reagan, but I don’t think he has ever comprehended who Reagan was, how he earned his position of leadership through decades of work and persuasion, how he lead both this nation and the world, and what he helped accomplish. Rather than provide Reaganesque leadership, Obama’s tenure in the White House has accelerated the polarization of politics in Washington, and the demise of constitutional law and responsibility within and among the political branches of the federal government, to an extent not seen since the last years of Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
Those final months of the Wilson years, when Wilson and the Senate refused to even talk to each other let alone properly function, helped turn the hope of a positive peace into the seeds of a devastating worldwide conflict that stretched from the 1930s through the 1980s. With today’s available weapons and technologies that are capable of destroying all semblance of civilization, we can’t afford to keep sowing these old seeds.
We can all recite the slings and arrows shot between our warring political and cultural camps over the last 50 years, which we believe caused or contributed to our present dysfunction, but we no longer have the luxury to wallow in the blame game over who started it, and who is wrong—it needs to end. And it needs to end with a re-acceptance of the proper spheres of responsibilities within our system of self-government from the individual, to the family, to the neighborhood and its private institutions, to the schools and local governments, to the states, and to the nation; with a re-acceptance of the proper role of federal government to secure and protect our system, to stabilize the world to allow people to prosper and realize their God-given rights; and with a re-acceptance of the proper responsibilities of Congress and the President, including the proper limits on those responsibilities.
Tonight, there will be children going to sleep in neighborhoods in Houston, in Ferguson, in Kiev, in Tel Aviv, in Ramallah, in Mosul, in Kabul, in Tehran, in Moscow, in Pyongyang, in Havana, in Caracas, and in thousands of other communities in a hundred more countries. All of them deserve to dream of a future in which they are free and safe to use their God-given rights and talents to work and earn an income, to raise a family, to contribute to a community, and to worship and believe as they choose, so they can live a wonderful and full life. Whether or not we like the responsibility history has placed on us, these children’s dreams have no chance of being fulfilled without a functioning American government that continues its great constitutional experiment in self-government, and that honors the promise it made over half a century ago to make the world safe so that freedom in all its aspects can take root, grow and reach full bloom. For tonight’s dreams to be fulfilled, we must start to re-build our constitutional self-government today.
Unfortunately, we face about 22 more months of a Presidency that is ideologically and intellectually committed to continue the unraveling of the historic American constitutional experiment, and of America’s promise to protect and stabilize the world for freedom. The most we adults can hope to accomplish in Washington over these last months is to thwart any further unraveling, cauterize the wounds to our system as much as possible, and persuade the American people that we will meet the historic challenge to fix the problems accelerated by the Obama Administration if given the chance in the Election of 2016.
But there is much we can and must do at the state and local level to prepare for a new day in Washington. First and foremost, we—all of us—must accept our responsibilities as free citizens for self-government. The acceptance of these fundamental responsibilities for the care and maintenance of ourselves, our families, and our neighborhoods is the most direct way that most of us will ever become, as Pope John Paul II described, men and women “of intelligence and free will, immersed in a mystery which transcends his own being and endowed with the ability to reflect and the ability to choose—and thus capable of wisdom and virtue.” Unless we accept these fundamental responsibilities, re-establishing a modern Madisonian republic will be virtually impossible, because limited government requires that citizens fill the voids left by the limitations on government with their own actions.
If we accept these fundamental responsibilities, we will summon the courage to demand that our elected officials reform state and local governments (including school districts) to re-assert and meet their constitutional responsibilities, and to retake control of their own budgets. Never in our lifetimes have we had the opportunity to re-assert our responsibilities and make the necessary reforms, because we now control a substantial majority of state governments. Let’s re-imagine state and local government responsibilities and budgets as if the federal government no longer interjected its regulations and funds into the operations of state and local affairs, and then begin the hard task of planning reforms based on that re-imagined future.
By re-taking control of our own lives and communities, and of our state and local governments, we can create the necessary conditions for re-establishing limited government at the federal level and re-establishing our priorities at home and abroad. If we succeed, we can rebuild the trust of our allies and the respect of our adversaries, so that tonight’s dreams will become tomorrow’s reality of a free and prosperous world.
We all aspire to be “immersed in a mystery which transcends” our lives, as were Reagan and the revolutionaries of 1989—we all want to do more than just exist, we want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. The exceptional American experiment in constitutional self-government has always given us this opportunity—all we have ever been challenged to do is to seize it, rather than allow a faceless bureaucracy to fill the vacuum left by of our inaction. This moment in history again has given us the challenge to seize this opportunity. If we frame the issue before us in this way, we will keep our focus on the right questions, and the right answers, in the long days ahead. If we succeed, we will have met our generation’s obligation to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” and those citizens in 2076 will honor our memory.
“There is no substitute for victory”.