Ronald Reagan on the State of the Union

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Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981 Ronald Reagan on the State of the Union

President Ronald Reagan

By Craig R. Smith

As we celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday and react to the State of the Union Address, it is appropriate to note that Reagan was the consummate performer from first to last. I lived in Washington, D.C. during all of Reagan’s State of the Union addresses. His first was delivered on Jan. 26, 1982, and it followed a terrible tragedy in Washington. On Jan. 13 an Air Florida jet with too much ice on its wings had slammed into the 14th Street Bridge spanning the icy Potomac River. Becoming a hero, Lenny Skutnik dove into those freezing waters and rescued several survivors.

During his address, Ronald Reagan praised Skutnik’s heroism. When Skutnik rose from his seat next to the First Lady to acknowledge the applause, the House was no longer divided, and Americans could take pride in the virtue of one man who stood for us all. Ronald Reagan made that happen and a new tradition was established.

Reagan’s last State of the Union address was equally impressive. By then, many of us had established our own tradition of gathering in homes around the city to watch the event. However, something strange intervened that January night in 1988. We had decided to watch the CBS Evening News during the cocktail hour because Vice President George H. W. Bush was going to be interviewed live. As I sipped my martini, the Bush news segment began with a long story about Bush’s involvement with Iran-Contra. After a commercial break, Rather began the live interview and it quickly became testy. When Rather continued to banter Bush about Iran-Contra, the Vice President said to Rather, “How would you like if all people remembered was when you walked off that set in Miami?” Caught off guard by Bush’s attack, Rather rudely cut the Vice President off and went to a commercial. Our dinner party buzzed with the implications of what had just happened.

At 9 p.m., the President arrived in the House chamber to more than the usual huzzahs and cheers. Reagan handed a copy of his last State of the Union address to the Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neal, and another to Bush, who sat behind Reagan as if nothing had happened.

Humbly, Reagan began by ignoring his own legacy: “Let’s leave that to history: we’re not finished yet.” The line brought the house down; Reagan was on his game. His famous sense of humor was soon evident: “Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, said, ‘Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish; do not overdo it.’”

Reagan announced that his speech would be organized around “four basic objectives,” and proceeded with his address. Then came a most unconventional moment. Reagan claimed, “Last year, of the 13 appropriations bills due by October 1st, none of them made it. . . . And then along came these behemoths.” Suddenly, everyone’s attention was drawn to tall stacks of paper sitting near the President. He moved over and lifted one up and carried it back to his lectern: “This is the conference report – a 1,053 page report weighing 14 pounds.” He plopped the stack down to much laughter and picked up another one. “Then this . . . 1186 pages long, weighing 15 pounds.” He dropped it and picked up another stack, again to continuing laughter and cheers. “[T]he long-term continuing resolution – 1057 pages long, weighing 14 pounds.” He plopped it down and then continued to much laughter, “That was total of 43 pounds of paper and ink. . . . Congress should not send another one of these. . . . If you do, I will not sign it.” The Congress erupted with applause and cheers. The moment was signature Reagan: The use of a litany of statistics, illustrated by the mounds of paper, and concluded with an effective punch line.

Having won over the audience, Reagan could now help Vice President Bush out. As he moved into the Iran-Contra policy, his audience was all ears. “Because of the freedom fighters . . . the Sandinistas have been forced to extend some democratic rights, negotiate with Church authorities, and release a few political prisoners.” We had been for Nicaragua what foreigners like “Lafayette, Pulaki, and Von Stuben” were to the American revolution. There was no apology for any actions he or his Vice President had taken.

It was not for nothing that he is remembered as the Great Communicator. Let us hope future presidents take note.

Craig R. Smith, a professor of communication studies at Cal State Long Beach, is a former presidential speechwriter for President Ford and the author of “Silencing the Opposition: How the Government Suppresses Freedom of Expression” (2011).

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