"I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."
Jan. 11, 1989
Twenty–five years ago tonight, Ronald Reagan delivered his farewell address to the nation, a little more than a week before he was to hand over the presidency to his successor, Vice President George H.W. Bush.
As I have mentioned here before, I was not a Reagan fan during his presidency — or at any time in his lifetime. We rarely saw eye to eye on anything, and I never voted for him, but it is beyond historical dispute that he was popular with other voters. In the last 30 years, only Reagan has received the overwhelming endorsement of the American people in a presidential election. No other victorious nominee — in either party — has ever come close.
(In fact, few have ever exceeded the 58% of the popular vote Reagan received in 1984 — and none have matched it since he did it. Richard Nixon got nearly 61% in 1972; so, too, did FDR in 1936 and Warren Harding in 1920, and Lyndon Johnson got slightly more than 61% in 1964. Herbert Hoover nearly matched Reagan's share of the popular vote in 1928.)
Historically, presidential farewell addresses are rather rare. Typically, they are made by two–term presidents, at least in modern times — Bill Clinton gave one and so did George W. Bush. One–term presidents usually don't give farewell addresses (although Jimmy Carter did give a farewell address in 1981), nor do presidents who die in office — for at least one very obvious reason.
Unless one counts Nixon's address announcing to the nation that he would resign the next day (or his speech to the White House staff before his departure for California the next day), Reagan's farewell address was the first by a two–term American president in nearly 30 years. Nixon, after all, was elected to two terms as president; he just didn't complete his second term.
Next to a president's memoirs, I guess a farewell address is a president's best — and, officially, last — opportunity to justify his actions in office. Unfortunately, most outgoing presidents can't resist the temptation to indulge in some last–minute self–promotion.
The farewell addresses that I have found to be the most memorable are the ones in which the president focused on the nation's achievements more than his own or spoke of the challenges the nation still faced and tried to impart some wisdom.
George Washington may have delivered the finest of the presidential farewell addresses, which was appropriate, given that he set the standard for so many facets of the presidency. Washington spoke of the presidency's "arduous trust."
Dwight Eisenhower, the last two–term president to give a farewell address before Reagan, memorably warned of the influence of the "military–industrial complex" on public policy.
In his "aw, shucks" way, Reagan spoke in his farewell address of the nickname "The Great Communicator" that had been given to him.
"I wasn't a great communicator," he insisted, "but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow; they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries."
He said he was willing to accept the label "Reagan Revolution" for what had occurred on his watch, but he gave credit for his presidency's achievements to the American people.
"I've had my share of victories in the Congress," Reagan said, "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."
Before closing, Reagan spoke of "the men and women of the Reagan Revolution."
"My friends: We did it," Reagan said. "We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all."