Source: Nicholas J. Kaster

President Reagan was famously optimistic. He will forever be remembered for “Morning in America,” the campaign ad that inspired his 1984 landslide re-election, and for his policies that revived American confidence at home and abroad.

But the caricatured version of Reagan as a perpetually grinning and genial old man does him a disservice. He was multifaceted and just as capable of stern warning as of sunny optimism.

Reagan first appeared on the scene politically in October 1964, campaigning for the doomed candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater. He delivered a powerful televised address called “A Time for Choosing,” that galvanized conservatives and launched his political career. Later, it simply became known as “The Speech.”

It was a stark warning about the path that America was about to take in the 1960s with the passage of LBJ’s Great Society and about the choice that the country faced. And that choice was not merely between Johnson and Goldwater — it was ultimately between the values of the country’s founders and the worldview of the Progressive Left.

“You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right,” Reagan said. “Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: up to man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”

This was not a sunny and optimistic speech. It was dark. There was no talk of Morning of America. Instead, he warned that America was on wrong path and needed to change course if it was to remain free.

Reagan was a realist. He believed passionately in American exceptionalism and was optimistic about the nation’s potential. But he was also aware of the profound threats that America faced and particularly the twin threats posed by Communism abroad and socialism at home.

And so it was with his Farewell Address, delivered on January 11, 1989.

Most of the speech consisted of a recitation of the achievements of the 1980s. He touted the economic recovery and the recovery of American morale. “America,” he said, “is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.”

But toward the end of the address, Reagan’s tone changed. The resurgence in national pride, he warned, wouldn’t last for long unless it is grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge of our history. “An informed patriotism is what we want,” Reagan said.

He wondered if we were doing enough to transmit American values to our children:

“Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.

“But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.” [My emphasis]

Even as postwar conservatism was reaching its high-water mark in the 1980s and 1990s, cultural Marxists were well entrenched in the media and academia. Reagan understood this and showed deep insight in perceiving that the failure to “reinstitutionalize” American values could cause the resurgent patriotism of the 1980s to be ephemeral. 

His warnings came to pass. The long march through the American institutions was not reversed. And within a generation of Reagan’s presidency, we are witnessing the desecration of America’s past, the rewriting of its history, the tearing down of its memorials; in short, the cultural vandalism that proceeds on a daily basis.

Reagan concluded his Farewell Address by noting that:

“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.”

These wise words from the Gipper are more relevant now than ever.