This January 20 marks the anniversary of two unforgettable inaugural addresses from two beloved presidents, Democrat and Republican: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. For Kennedy’s speech, this is the golden anniversary, 50 years; for Reagan, 30 years.
Both speeches were extraordinary. Kennedy’s lasting line was, of course, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Reagan’s most memorable phrase was probably this one: “We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline…. Let us begin an era of national renewal.” Reagan’s line struck the New York Times, which, the next day, thrust the words “era of national renewal” atop page one.
In both inaugurals, there was no mistaking the message, or the mood that followed. Both initiated a profound, palpable, quite immediate change in the nation’s morale and sense of itself. The shift was dramatic. Of course, it wasn’t just the speeches that made the difference, but the men who made them, with the inaugurals their starting points.
As evidence of the specialness of these two men and their presidencies, consider what happened in between. Between Kennedy and Reagan there was an extended bipartisan disaster, with two Democrats as bookends, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and two Republicans in between, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Those four presidencies ended in defeat, despair, debilitation, or even ruin. LBJ was destroyed by Vietnam, and decided not to pursue reelection. Nixon resigned in disgrace and suffered a mental breakdown. Ford, not an inspiring figure, never won an election. Carter lost 44 states to Reagan. Harvard’s renowned presidential scholar, the late Richard Neustadt, remarked that watching Jimmy Carter, one wondered if the presidency was “even possible.”
Amid all this was Vietnam, the counter culture, Watergate, malaise, misery index, unemployment, double-digit inflation, 21-percent interest rates, energy crisis, oil shocks, the Soviets in Afghanistan, hostages in Iran, and on and on. It was a prolonged national nightmare.
Really, Kennedy’s message of hope, so forceful on January 20, 1961, dissipated like dust in the wind.
But then came Reagan, precisely 20 years later, January 20, 1981.
The moment Reagan swore the oath, he committed himself to “national renewal.” Unbeknownst to the press, those two words flowed directly from his personal pen. The theme pervaded the ceremony. On the reverse side of the tickets for the inaugural event was this promise: “America—A Great New Beginning, 1981.”
It is not an exaggeration to say the change in mood began that instant, as the hostages were freed in Tehran—prompting The New York Times to double its top-of-the-fold headline: “Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President; Promises an ‘Era of National Renewal;’ Minutes Later, 52 U.S. Hostages in Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal.”
Those who experienced the moment, including presidential scholars in that era, agreed that Reagan achieved that renewal. As quick as the end of Reagan’s first term, academic historians and political scientists—most of whom were on the political left—hailed Reagan for his “restoration of morale and trust” to the country and presidency. Specifically, a major 1985 survey by National Journal found scholars commending Reagan for “reviving trust and confidence” in an institution “that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable.” Harvard’s Neustadt spoke for many of the scholars when he said that Reagan gave Americans a sense that “all was well,” a sea-change from the Carter malaise.
Outside the academy, Time’s dean of presidential correspondents, Hugh Sidey, said flatly: “No one can deny that Ronald Reagan restored morale to a country that needed it.” Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, and generally a cynic, went so far as to claim that Reagan transformed the national mood “overnight.” The change was so rapid, said Morris, “that it can only be ascribed to him.”
Most telling, similar assessments came even from the enemy’s camp. If Ronald Reagan had read Russian, he would have been blown away by an assessment from the erstwhile Evil Empire. There, the publication, Literaturnaya Gazeta, informed Soviet citizens: “The years of [Reagan’s] presidency have seen an unprecedented surge in America’s self-belief, and quite a marked recovery in the economy…. Reagan restored America’s belief that it is capable of achieving a lot.” The communist publication closed glowingly: “Reagan is giving America what it has been yearning for. Optimism. Self-belief. Heroes.”
Of course, Kennedy, too, gave that to America.
Today, it seems inconceivable that a president from either party would be universally seen as a hero, inspiring so much optimism and self-belief. Yet, in the last half-century, it happened twice, 50 years ago this January 20, with JFK’s inauguration, and 30 years ago this January 20, with Reagan’s inauguration. Those were good times, rare times—worth preserving, maybe even recovering.