Today, Jan. 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: "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 thrust the words "era of national renewal" atop Page 1.
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 between their beginnings. 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.
LBJ was destroyed by Vietnam, and decided not to pursue re-election. Nixon resigned in disgrace. Ford never won a national election. Carter lost 44 states to Reagan. Harvard's renowned presidential scholar, the late Richard Neustadt, remarked that watching Carter, one wondered if the presidency was "even possible."
Amid all this came Vietnam, Watergate, the misery index, unemployment, double-digit inflation, 21 percent interest rates ... it was a prolonged national nightmare.
Really, Kennedy's message of hope, so forceful on Jan. 20, 1961, dissipated like dust in the wind. But then came Reagan, precisely 20 years later. Unbeknownst to the press, the words "national renewal" flowed directly from his personal pen. The theme pervaded the ceremony. On the reverse side of inaugural tickets was, "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.
Those who experienced the moment, including presidential scholars, agreed that Reagan achieved that renewal. By 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. Harvard's Neustadt spoke for many of the scholars when he said that Reagan gave Americans a sense that "all was well."
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 the Literaturnaya Gazeta informing 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 those things 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 with Kennedy's inauguration, and 30 years ago with Reagan's inauguration. Those were good times, rare times — worth preserving, maybe even recovering.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values.