The morning after the first presidential debate, I awoke saddened that the moderator needed to ask whether the candidates would honor a peaceful transition, or felt the need to ask them to denounce white supremacy. I watched a debate that was embarrassing, and I woke up wanting to recall a different time, different presidents, different presidential challengers and a different political time — if only so I could explain to my three daughters that it was not always like this.
I decided to rewatch Ronald Reagan’s last conversation with us as president, the one in which — using the poetry of early pilgrim John Winthrop — he described our country as a “city upon a hill.”
Technically I suppose it was his farewell address to the nation, but watching him you find yourself feeling more like being on a walk with your grandfather.
He first confesses that being president for eight years left him somewhat removed from the rest of us. “You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is driving, and seeing people through tinted glass — the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn’t return.”
But within the cloister that comes with the seat, he takes you to a window that looks over and past the Washington Monument. As he does so, one can’t help feeling the sun rising with him, and for a quick moment fooled into thinking you’re alone with him.
“On mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac and the Virginia shore … Well, I see more prosaic things: The grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, and now and then a sailboat on the river,” he says.
Out my own window in northern Wyoming, the only traffic are elk making their way back to the river to bed down for the day; but Reagan and I shared the same sunrise, and that was enough.
The sailboat, he continues, reminds him about a “small story about a big ship.” He tells of a sailor working on the carrier Midway, patrolling the South China Sea, who spies a “leaky little boat,” packed with refugees from Indochina searching for refuge, a shining city upon a hill.
“The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship, and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor — Hello Freedom Man.’”
In what I choose to believe was not pretended modesty but revelation, Reagan insists that such ideas were not rhetoric from a great communicator, but something more. “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow,” but instead came from the “heart of a great nation.”
The heart he refers to is common experience, shared wisdom and a mutual belief in guiding principles. Not competing tribal hearts, but a single heart we are all forced, and privileged, to share.
I suppose that is the same heart that once beat together among Americans, under which President Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could craft legislation over steak dinners together. Or under which Wyoming politicians like Wyoming’s Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy were able to craft the last meaningful immigration legislation of my lifetime.
Out his beloved window, Reagan left us with the promise of a “tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans,” telling us, “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Then, in that moment with all of America gazing out the window with him, the sun higher in the sky, he asked us a question which I took, instead, as a challenge.
I believe he wanted his next words to be meant for us individually — to me as a father and husband and friend. Like a small story about a big ship, this city is ours to take care of, and he requested we ask of each other a question now and then: “How stands the city?”
In such a city I don’t think politicians in D.C. would gridlock or attack each other on national television. Nor would Wyoming lawmakers fail to find an economic path forward for our coal communities, leaving them without jobs or benefits after each bankruptcy.
Reagan’s address is a reminder to us all: We can do better.