Trump's Echo of Reagan -- as Governor and President
Among many memorable moments from President Trump's State of the Union address, the highlights clearly were his laudatory comments about his special guests, who were seated near the first lady and whose emotional stories elicited great applause.
Numerous commentators have traced the origin of having such honored guests to President Reagan’s 1982 SOTU. Indeed, it was Reagan who pioneered the idea of spotlighting the heroism of ordinary Americans at such high-profile speeches – in fact, it was Governor Reagan.
Ronald Reagan became governor of California on Jan. 2, 1967. During the transition, he had been handed an economic nightmare. His predecessor, Democrat Pat Brown, surreptitiously had counted 15 months of state income in one 12-month fiscal year to create a false budget surplus; Reagan suddenly had to deal with the resultant budgetary crisis, so he rolled up his sleeves.
He proceeded to deliver an initial inaugural address at midnight so he could get right to work, as plans continued for the formal inauguration on Jan. 4. For the second version of his speech, Reagan, who wrote the entire address himself, added two special sections.
Several portions of the speech heralded the same themes of individual freedom and small government that President Trump would echo a half century later:
"Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation from extinction. … It must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people."
"An increasing number lately, at all levels of government, have sought control even of the means of production, as if they could not do this without eventually controlling those who produce."
"Government is the people's business, and every man, woman and child becomes a shareholder with the first penny of tax paid. … The most meaningful words [of the Constitution] are the first three, 'We, the people.’ ... We are chosen by the people to see that no permanent structure of government ever encroaches on the people's freedom or assumes a power beyond that which has freely been granted to us by the people.”
Governor Reagan, as would President Trump, prayed for God's help in governing, where "the people can participate and prosper because of their government and not in spite of it."
In the area of jobs, Reagan sought to "change a relief check to a paycheck" and admonished that "only private industry, in the last analysis, can produce jobs with a future."
To start the process of streamlining government, he then promised, "We are going to squeeze and cut and trim until we reduce the cost of government." Reagan ordered an audit of state finances by independent firms and started the process of forcing expenditures to conform to generally accepted business practices.
At the end of his address, Reagan turned toward national issues – in particular, foreign policy -- and homed in on Vietnam. During the time period from July 1965 through his election and inauguration, and well afterwards, Reagan had been mentored privately on politics and world affairs by former President Dwight Eisenhower. During the gubernatorial campaign, he had spoken out on foreign affairs only very briefly.
His inaugural address now provided the first opportunity to begin proclaiming his conservative views in this realm. Of course his comments as a brand-new state-level officeholder had to be restrained. And Reagan found two unique ways of accomplishing his goal. Pointing next to him, he said:
"If some of you glanced up at the flag today that's here on the platform, you might have been puzzled by its rather small size. … That flag was carried into battle in Vietnam by young men of California. Many of those men will not be coming home. One did, grievously wounded -- Sergeant Robert Howell is with us today. He brought that flag back to us. They were proud enough to carry it, and I thought we'd be proud to have it fly here at the Capitol on this occasion today."
Then, looking up directly to the wounded officer sitting next to Mrs. Reagan, the governor added, "Sergeant, that flag might even serve to put our problems in better perspective. It might remind us that we need to give our sons and daughters a cause to believe in and banners to follow."
Ronald Reagan's major achievements that 1967 inauguration day were to launch California, and eventually America, onto the path of smaller government and increased individual freedom; he also began restoring pride to the people. And he set in motion two precedents in his speech as well: of telling the American people the stories of individual American heroes whom he had invited to be present at the address. Plus Reagan had praised an object, in this first case the small state flag that had flown in Vietnam.
Those traditions would be followed in the future many times, both by himself as governor and later as president, and by successor presidents as well. Ronald Reagan would be proud that by 2018, his 1967 honoring of special guests would be transformed by President Trump into the highlight of his address.
Ronald Reagan closed his 1967 speech by proclaiming his state "a place of unlimited opportunity, a golden dream for all who have the courage to dare." As president, his words would morph into those from the Pilgrims, calling his nation "a shining city upon the hill."
President Reagan would restore pride in America, would create more than 25 million jobs, and would end the Cold War without firing a single shot. A rancher at heart, he left huge boots to fill. Donald Trump is proving that he fits into those conservative, Republican boots just perfectly, and is following the path first blazed by Ronald Reagan a half-century earlier.