President-elect Donald Trump privately told several visitors to his winter retreat in Florida on Wednesday that he is writing the first draft of his inaugural speech and is looking to presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy for inspiration, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
Hmm. If he wants to channel great presidents, Trump might want to learn something about what these presidents said and what they stood for.
Both understood the threat of the Soviet Union and understood the moral underpinning of U.S. foreign policy. Reagan in his first inaugural address declared:
To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.
As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever. …
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.
Kennedy did not say, “NATO costs too much.” He declared in his 1961 inaugural address: “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” He continued, “Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?”
Both Kennedy and Reagan affirmed America’s tradition as a land of opportunity and beacon of hope for immigrants. “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands,” Reagan said in July 1981. Maybe Trump can pick up a copy of JFK’s 1958 book, “A Nation of Immigrants.”
Then there is the matter of entitlement reform. Reagan announced his intention to pass reforms to keep Social Security afloat. In April 1983, he signed legislation fulfilling his promise. At the signing he declared:
Today, all of us can look each other square in the eye and say, “We kept our promises.” We promised that we would protect the financial integrity of Social Security. We have. We promised that we would protect beneficiaries against any loss in current benefits. We have. And we promised to attend to the needs of those still working, not only those Americans nearing retirement but young people just entering the labor force. And we’ve done that, too.
None of us here today would pretend that this bill is perfect. Each of us had to compromise one way or another. But the essence of bipartisanship is to give up a little in order to get a lot. And, my fellow Americans, I think we’ve gotten a very great deal.
Trump and his advisers should reflect on the content of these presidents’ speeches — stand up to our enemies, protect our friends, welcome immigrants and act responsibly to protect entitlements — but also the tone. They were magnanimous, optimistic and inclusive. (JFK: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”) Reagan did not vilify Democrats; he charmed and negotiated with them. He was a principled conservative but not a partisan. He spoke to the country as a whole, exhorting it to live up to its ideals. (“I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”)
If Trump comprehends what these presidents said and how they conducted themselves, he will be a very different president from what his campaign — mean-spirited, bigoted, insulting, dishonest, self-aggrandizing — suggested. America is already great; it need not remake itself. It’s Trump who has to measure up to his predecessors, some of whom were great, others mediocre but all to one degree or another embodying American virtues and values. He has a long way to go.