Thursday, June 10, 2004

The old man said something special…

…when he left the White House for the last time. His farewell speech to the US, given on a midwinter night in 1999, and which I’ve just watched for the first time, was delivered with an almost grandfatherly benevolence. And in it:

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the people.” “We the people” tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. “We the people” are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the people” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the people” are free.

And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

That speech (the transcript is here) certainly shows what newfound eloquence can come from having an ‘Old Hollywood’ actor in a political job: I suspect that Reagan knew before he started that his job would be just as much about acting as it was about politics. However, in this speech there’s something more.

This speech isn’t a promise of what he’ll do. It’s his last speech; he can do nothing more as President. This speech isn’t a monolithic account, handed to History, of what he’s achieved. It is instead, as I’ve said above, a fond eulogy, high on emotion and low on detail, to his time spent changing things. A grandfather talking to his grownup grandchildren, his eyes sparkling and his lips poised in a grin, occasionally pursing more than slightly, as older mouths seem apt to do.

And what do you think? How do you want things? Never mind ‘America’ — I’m interested in what I’ve done, and I hope you’ll feel it was worth it. If you don’t, then speak, and don’t stop until you’ve got what you want.

He seems to be saying all that. Of course, he’s a politician. That is his skill. He is an actor. That is his vocation. And he is a Republican, with those values. But I sense a world of difference between his ‘less government’ ideal and Bush’s ‘more government’ soapbox.

Lassoed by a politician with an actor’s guile? Probably. But I yearn for the day when Bush, or anyone like him, says anything remotely like that and means it.

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