Address by President Ronald Reagan to the Conservative Political Action Conference
March 20, 1981
In the rough days ahead, and you and I know there will be such days, I hope that you’ll be like the mother of the young lad in camp when the camp director told her that he was going to have to discipline her son. And she said, “Well, don’t be too hard on him. He’s very sensitive. Slap the boy next to him, and that will scare Irving.” [Laughter] But let us also, tonight, salute those with vision who labored to found this group — the American Conservative Union, the Young Americans for Freedom, National Review and Human Events.
It’s been said that anyone who seeks success or greatness should first forget about both and seek only the truth, and the rest will follow. Well, fellow truthseekers, none of us here tonight — contemplating the seal on this podium and a balanced budget in 1984 — can argue with that kind of logic. For whatever history does finally say about our cause, it must say: The conservative movement in 20th century America held fast through hard and difficult years to its vision of the truth. And history must also say that our victory, when it was achieved, was not so much a victory of politics as it was a victory of ideas, not so much a victory for any one man or party as it was a victory for a set of principles — principles that were protected and nourished by a few unselfish Americans through many grim and heartbreaking defeats.
Now, you are those Americans that I’m talking about. I wanted to be here not just to acknowledge your efforts on my behalf, not just to remark that last November’s victory was singularly your victory, not just to mention that the new administration in Washington is a testimony to your perseverance and devotion to principle, but to say, simply, “Thank you,” and to say those words not as a President, or even as a conservative; thank you as an American. I say this knowing that there are many in this room whose talents might have entitled them to a life of affluence but who chose another career out of a higher sense of duty to country. And I know, too, that the story of their selflessness will never be written up in Time or Newsweek or go down in the history books.
You know, on an occasion like this it’s a little hard not to reminisce, not to think back and just realize how far we’ve come. The Portuguese have a word for such recollection — saudade — a poetic term rich with the dreams of yesterday. And surely in our past there was many a dream that went a glimmering and many a field littered with broken lances.
Who can forget that July night in San Francisco when Barry Goldwater told us that we must set the tides running again in the cause of freedom, and he said, “until our cause has won the day, inspired the world, and shown the way to a tomorrow worthy of all our yesteryears”? And had there not been a Barry Goldwater willing to take that lonely walk, we wouldn’t be here talking of a celebration tonight.
But our memories are not just political ones. I like to think back about a small, artfully written magazine named National Review, founded in 1955 and ridiculed by the intellectual establishment because it published an editorial that said it would stand athwart the course of history yelling, “Stop!” And then there was a spiritedly written newsweekly coming out of Washington named Human Events that many said would never be taken seriously, but it would become later “must reading” not only for Capitol Hill insiders but for all of those in public life.
How many of us were there who used to go home from meetings like this with no thought of giving up, but still find ourselves wondering in the dark of night whether this much-loved land might go the way of other great nations that lost a sense of mission and a passion for freedom?
There are so many people and institutions who come to mind for their role in the success we celebrate tonight. Intellectual leaders like Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises — they shaped so much of our thoughts.
It’s especially hard to believe that it was only a decade ago, on a cold April day on a small hill in upstate New York, that another of these great thinkers, Frank Meyer, was buried. He’d made the awful journey that so many others had: He pulled himself from the clutches of “The God That Failed,” and then in his writing fashioned a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought — a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism.
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace.
Our goals complement each other. We’re not cutting the budget simply for the sake of sounder financial management. This is only a first step toward returning power to the States and communities, only a first step toward reordering the relationship between citizen and government. We can make government again responsive to the people by cutting its size and scope and thereby ensuring that its legitimate functions are performed efficiently and justly.
Because ours is a consistent philosophy of government, we can be very clear: We do not have a social agenda, separate, separate economic agenda, and a separate foreign agenda. We have one agenda. Just as surely as we seek to put our financial house in order and rebuild our nation’s defenses, so too we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of schoolchildren by utopian planners, and permit the acknowledgement of a Supreme Being in our classrooms just as we allow such acknowledgements in other public institutions.
Now, obviously we’re not going to be able to accomplish all this at once. The American people are patient. I think they realize that the wrongs done over several decades cannot be corrected instantly. You know, I had the pleasure in appearing before a Senate committee once while I was still Governor, and I was challenged because there was a Republican President in the White House who’d been there for several months — why we hadn’t then corrected everything that had been done. And the only way I could think to answer him is I told him about a ranch many years ago that Nancy and I acquired. It had a barn with eight stalls in it in which they had kept cattle, and we wanted to keep horses. And I was in there day after day with a pick and a shovel, lowering the level of those stalls, which had accumulated over the years.
And I told this Senator who’d asked that question that I discovered that you did not undo in weeks or months what it had taken some 15 years to accumulate.
I also believe that we conservatives, if we mean to continue governing, must realize that it will not always be so easy to place the blame on the past for our national difficulties. You know, one day the great baseball manager Frankie Frisch sent a rookie out to play center field. The rookie promptly dropped the first fly ball that was hit to him. On the next play he let a grounder go between his feet and then threw the ball to the wrong base. Frankie stormed out of the dugout, took his glove away from him and said, “I’ll show you how to play this position.” And the next batter slammed a line drive right over second base. Frankie came in on it, missed it completely, fell down when he tried to chase it, threw down his glove, and yelled at the rookie,
“You’ve got center field so screwed up nobody can play it.”
The point is we must lead a nation, and that means more than criticizing the past. Indeed, as T. S. Eliot once said, “Only by acceptance of the past will you alter its meaning.”
Now, during our political efforts, we were the subject of much indifference and often times intolerance, and that’s why I hope our political victory will be remembered as a generous one and our time in power will be recalled for the tolerance we showed for those with whom we disagree.
But beyond this, beyond this we have to offer America and the world a larger vision. We must remove government’s smothering hand from where it does harm; we must seek to revitalize the proper functions of government. But we do these things to set loose again the energy and the ingenuity of the American people. We do these things to reinvigorate those social and economic institutions which serve as a buffer and a bridge between the individual and the state — and which remain the real source of our progress as a people.
And we must hold out this exciting prospect of an orderly, compassionate, pluralistic society — an archipelago of prospering communities and divergent institutions — a place where a free and energetic people can work out their own destiny under God.
I know that some will think about the perilous world we live in and the dangerous decade before us and ask what practical effect this conservative vision can have today. When Prime Minister Thatcher was here recently we both remarked on the sudden, overwhelming changes that had come recently to politics in both our countries.
At our last official function, I told the Prime Minister that everywhere we look in the world the cult of the state is dying. And I held out hope that it wouldn’t be long before those of our adversaries who preach the supremacy of the state were remembered only for their role in a sad, rather bizarre chapter in human history. The largest planned economy in the world has to buy food elsewhere or its people would starve.
We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror. But from these terrible places have come survivors, witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power, prisoners whose spiritual values made them the rulers of their guards. With their survival, they brought us “the secret of the camps,” a lesson for our time and for any age: Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.
That’s why the Marxist vision of man without God must eventually be seen as an empty and a false faith — the second oldest in the world — first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: “Ye shall be as gods.” The crisis of the Western world, Whittaker Chambers reminded us, exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. “The Western world does not know it,” he said about our struggle, “but it already possesses the answer to this problem — but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in man.”
This is the real task before us: to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength. Only by building a wall of such spiritual resolve can we, as a free people, hope to protect our own heritage and make it someday the birthright of all men.
There is, in America, a greatness and a tremendous heritage of idealism which is a reservoir of strength and goodness. It is ours if we will but tap it. And, because of this — because that greatness is there — there is need in America today for a reaffirmation of that goodness and a reformation of our greatness.
The dialog and the deeds of the past few decades are not sufficient to the day in which we live. They cannot keep the promise of tomorrow. The encrusted bureaucracies and the engrained procedures which have developed of late respond neither to the minority or the majority. We’ve come to a turning point. We have a decision to make. Will we continue with yesterday’s agenda and yesterday’s failures, or will we reassert our ideals and our standards, will we reaffirm our faith, and renew our purpose? This is a time for choosing.
I made a speech by that title in 1964. I said, “We’ve been told increasingly that we must choose between left or right.” But we’re still using those terms — left or right. And I’ll repeat what I said then in ’64. “There is no left or right. There’s only an up or down:” up to the ultimate in individual freedom, man’s age old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society — or down to the totalitarianism of the ant heap. And those today who, however good their intentions, tell us that we should trade freedom for security are on that downward path.
Those of us who call ourselves conservative have pointed out what’s wrong with government policy for more than a quarter of a century. Now we have an opportunity to make policy and to change our national direction. All of us in government — in the House, in the Senate, in the executive branch — and in private life can now stand together. We can stop the drain on the economy by the public sector. We can restore our national prosperity. We can replace the over regulated society with the creative society. We can appoint to the bench distinguished judges who understand the first responsibility of any legal system is to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. We can restore to their rightful place in our national consciousness the values of family, work, neighborhood, and religion. And, finally, we can see to it that the nations of the world clearly understand America’s intentions and respect for resolve.
Now we have the opportunity — yes, and the necessity — to prove that the American promise is equal to the task of redressing our grievances and equal to the challenge of inventing a great tomorrow.
This reformation, this renaissance will not be achieved or will it be served, by those who engage in political claptrap or false promises. It will not be achieved by those who set people against people, class against class, or institution against institution. So, while we celebrate our recent political victory we must understand there’s much work before us: to gain control again of government, to reward personal initiative and risk-taking in the marketplace, to revitalize our system of federalism, to strengthen the private institutions that make up the independent sector of our society, and to make our own spiritual affirmation in the face of those who would deny man has a place before God. Not easy tasks perhaps. But I would remind you as I did on January 20th, they’re not impossible, because, after all, we’re Americans.
This year we will celebrate a victory won two centuries ago at Yorktown, the victory of a small, fledgling nation over a mighty world power. How many people are aware — I’ve been told that a British band played the music at that surrender ceremony because we didn’t have a band. [Laughter] And they played a tune that was very popular in England at the time. Its title was “The World Turned Upside Down.” I’m sure it was far more appropriate than they realized at that moment. The heritage from that long difficult struggle is before our eyes today in this city, in the great halls of our government and in the monuments to the memory of our great men.
It is this heritage that evokes the images of a much-loved land, a land of struggling settlers and lonely immigrants, of giant cities and great frontiers, images of all that our country is and all that we want her to be. That’s the America entrusted to us, to stand by, to protect, and yes, to lead her wisely.
Fellow citizens, fellow conservatives, our time is now. Our moment has arrived. We stand together shoulder to shoulder in the thickest of the fight. If we carry the day and turn the tide, we can hope that as long as men speak of freedom and those who have protected it, they will remember us, and they will say, “Here were the brave and here their place of honor.”
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