Perhaps, like you, I’ve always enjoyed hearing again President Ronald Reagan’s speeches (you can hear them over at You Tube, please treat yourself to find out what political speeches are really meant to be).
In 1976, when Reagan ran against the incumbent, Gerald Ford (really the constitutional successor of Richard Nixon since Ford was never elected to the presidency), my family of blue collar democrats cheered Reagan as we heard him deliver a speech in support of Ford at the Republican National Convention. We cheered because we knew, as everyone attuned to politics did at that time, Reagan should have been the nominee. He spoke to our hearts. Ford was not the right candidate for the times. And we felt the farmer from Georgia was not either. The world was changing, certainly not in a good or holy way. Catholics clamored for a return to normalcy the church refused to grant us. We were in the midst of the “spirit” of post Vatican II. We didn’t like it. It was forced upon us like a thunderstorm with cloudbursts which certainly dovetailed with the times but left the faithful like a ship without an anchor.
Like us, millions of hard working Americans anticipated the campaign of 1980 and the return of “the Gipper.” After four painful years of Jimmy Carter, America was ready to express, not its collective “malaise” but a new and energetic sense of patriotism. Reagan, with a sparkle in his eye and conveying an unmitigated certitude of nationalistic pride provided us with the raw materials to make that happen.
I know, an actor he might have been, but even Tip O’Neill, the crafty and astute democrat and long-time Speaker of the House from Massachusetts, knew Reagan could and would communicate his opinions with a homespun Midwestern voice that stretched across our Continental Divide and reach both coastlines with ease and a magnetic message, comforting to the listener, of enduring values and time-tested virtues. In the lifetimes of those that had experienced the uproar of the sixties, political assassinations, a presidential abdication, and vast changes in our national mores and morality, Ronald Reagan was a tonic much needed and very much a balm applied to and alleviating our country’s aches and pains.
But, it was his voice which made all the difference.
And, it was something he said in a Memorial Day Speech on May 31st, 1982 that opened up this, at that time, young democrat’s mind. It was a question. It was the way he subtly put it. It was a question not of Reagan’s making, he did not write it, nor any of his speechwriters, who he really didn’t need any way for he was, himself, like Lincoln, a great writer. He was only quoting the lyrics of our national anthem. Yet, I’d never really thought about it before or even given it any credence whatsoever.
Me, who has written two novels based on the War of 1812. And I thought I knew everything about that time in our nation’s history, even to the last stich on the magnificent flag of our great “Old Glory” flying proudly over Fort McHenry, in Baltimore Harbor as the sun finally broke through a perilous night and revealed to a young Francis Scott Key that our flag was still there.
Remember, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. He was young, but old enough, perhaps, to remember the “Great War,” (1914-1918) supposedly “the war to end all wars.” World War I surely would have come to have an influence on him and had an effect upon his family and Tampico residents in general as it did everywhere in the world, especially among the “Doughboys” and their families in the Midwest. Much more so would be the influence World War II had upon all Americans, including Reagan, who had to endure stateside service because of his failing eyesight. Add to that, he lived through the so called police actions in Korea and Vietnam. Through all of this turmoil, Reagan never forgot the price to be paid for our freedoms. It was instilled in him and forever would peal out like a church bell on Sunday morning. Certainly, his magnificent Memorial Day speeches both in 1984, where he dedicated his thoughts to courageous Vietnam veterans, and 1986, when he singled out three American veterans buried at Arlington: Joe Lewis, Audie Murphy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, were more than fitting and decidedly memorable. But, it was his 1982 speech at Arlington which caught my attention and imagination. Listen to this in your mind’s eye and hear his voice:
“The willingness of some to give their lives so that others might live never fails to evoke in us a sense of wonder and mystery. One gets that feeling here on this hallowed ground, and I have known that same poignant feeling as I looked out across the rows of white crosses and stars of David in Europe, in the Philippines, and the military cemeteries here in our own land. Each one marks the resting place of an American hero, and in my lifetime, the heroes of World War I, the Doughboys, the GI’s of World War II or Korea or Vietnam. They span several generations of young Americans, all different and yet all alike. Like the markers above their resting places, all alike in a truly meaningful way.
“Winston Churchill said of those he knew in World War II they seemed to be the only young men who could laugh and fight at the same time. A great general in that war called them our secret weapon, “just the best darned kids in the world.” Each died for a cause he considered more important than his own life. Well, they didn’t volunteer to die; they volunteered to defend values for men have always been willing to die if need be, the values which make up what we call civilization. And how they must have wished, in all the ugliness that war brings, that no other generation of young men to follow would have to undergo that same experience.
“As we honor their memory today, let us pledge that their lives, their sacrifices, their valor shall be justified and remembered for as long as God gives life to this nation. And let us also pledge to do our utmost to carry out what must have been their wish: that no other generation of young men will have to share their experiences and repeat their sacrifice.
“Earlier today, with the music that we have heard and that of our National Anthem – I can’t claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I don’t know of any other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does: Does that flag still wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? This is what we must all ask.”
Think about it. Every generation must ask this question. The question at the end of the first stanza of Francis Scott Key’s poem. Key didn’t put in an exclamation point, he put in a question mark I’d never noticed before. But it makes sense doesn’t it?
This Memorial Day we must, for it is our duty to do so, ask this question of ourselves and of our nation. We must answer it honestly as if our country’s future depended upon it. Because it does.