President Reagan looked forward — and fondly back — in his 1981 Commencement address at Notre Dame.
Editor’s Note: President Ronald Reagan’s first trip outside Washington, D.C., after surviving a March 1981 assassination attempt was to Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony, reuniting him with Pat O’Brien, who played Knute Rockne to his Gipper in the film, Knute Rockne All American. As biographer Lou Cannon wrote in Reagan, the president “rejected the advice of aides who wanted him to talk about foreign policy, as President Carter had done four years before at a Notre Dame commencement. Reagan had written his own speech. What he wanted to talk about was Knute Rockne.” President Reagan’s address to the Class of 1981 is our latest Magazine Classic.
If I don’t watch myself this could turn out to be less a commencement than a warm bath in nostalgic memories.
During my growing-up years in nearby Illinois, I was greatly influenced by a sports legend so national in scope and so almost mystical, it is difficult to explain to any who did not live in those times. The legend was based on the combination of three elements: a game, football; a university, Notre Dame; and a man, Knute Rockne. There has been nothing like it before or since.
My first time ever to see Notre Dame was to come here as a sports announcer only two years out of college to broadcast a football game. You won or I wouldn’t haven’t mentioned that.
A number of years later I returned in the company of Pat O’Brien and a galaxy of Hollywood stars for the world premiere of Knute Rockne All American, in which I was privileged to play George Gipp. There were probably others in the motion picture industry who could have played the part better. There were none who could have wanted to play it as much as I did.
Having come to Hollywood from the world of sports, I had been trying to write a story treatment based on the life of Knute Rockne. And I must confess my main purpose was because I had someone in mind to play the Gipper. On one of my sports broadcasts before going to Hollywood, I had told the story of his career and tragic death. I didn’t have many words down on paper when I learned the studio where I was employed was already preparing to film that story.
And that brings me to the theme of my remarks. I am the third President to address a Notre Dame commencement. The temptation is great to use this forum for an address on some national or international issue having nothing to do with the occasion itself. Indeed this is somewhat traditional so I haven’t been surprised to read in a number of reputable journals that I was going to deliver a major address on foreign policy. Others said it would be on the economy. It will be on neither.
By the same token I will not belabor you with some of the standard rhetoric beloved of graduation speakers over the years. I won’t tell you that “You know more today than you have ever known or than will ever know again,” or that other standby: “When I was 14 I didn’t think my father knew anything. By the time I was 21 I was amazed at how much the old gentleman had learned in seven years.”
Government is created by us for our convenience, having only those powers which we choose to give it.
You members of the graduating class of 1981 are what the behaviorists call “achievers.” And while you will look back with warm pleasure on the years that led to this day, you are today also looking toward a future which for most of you seems uncertain but which I assure you offers great expectations.
Take pride in this day, thank your parents and those who over the last four years have been of help to you, and do a little celebrating. This is your day, and whatever I say should take cognizance of that fact. This is a milestone in your life and a time of change.
Winston Churchill, during the darkest period of the Battle of Britain in World War II said: “When great causes are on the move in the world . . . we learn we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”
I’m going to mention again that movie Pat and I and Notre Dame were in for it says something about America. Knute Rockne as a boy came to this country with his parents from Norway. He became so American that here at Notre Dame he was an All American in a sport that is uniquely American.
As a coach he did more than teach young men how to play a game. He believed that the noblest work of man was molding the character of man. Maybe that’s why he was a living legend. No man connected with football has ever achieved the stature or occupied the singular niche in our nation that he carved out for himself, not just in a sport, but in our entire social structure.
“Win one for the Gipper” has become a line usually spoken now in a humorous vein. I hear it from members of Congress who are supportive of the economic program I’ve submitted. But let’s look at the real significance of his story. Rockne could have used it anytime just to win a game. But eight years would go by following the death of George Gipp before Rock ever revealed Gipp’s deathbed wish.
Then he told the story at halftime to one of the only teams he’d ever coached that was torn by dissension, jealousy and factionalism. The seniors on that team were about to close out their football careers without ever learning or experiencing some of the real values the game has to impart.
None of them had ever known George Gipp. They were children when he played for Notre Dame. Yet it was to this team that Rockne told the story and so inspired them that they rose above their personal animosities. They joined together in a common cause and attained the unattainable.
We were told of one line spoken by a player during that game that we were afraid to put in the picture. The man who carried the ball over for the winning touchdown was injured on the play. We were told that as he was lifted on the stretcher and taken off the field he was heard to say: “That’s the last one I can get for you, Gipper.”
Yes, it was only a game and it might seem somewhat maudlin, but is there anything wrong with young men having the experience of feeling something so deeply that they can give so completely of themselves? There will come times in the lives of all of us when we’ll be faced with causes bigger than ourselves and they won’t be on a playing field.
This nation was born when a little band of men we call the founding fathers, a group so unique we’ve never seen their like since, rose to such selfless heights.
Lawyers, tradesmen, merchants, farmers — 56 men in all — who had achieved security and some standing in life, but who valued freedom more. They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Some gave their lives, most gave their fortunes, all preserved their sacred honor.
They gave us more than a nation. They brought to all mankind for the first time the concept that man was born free, that each of us has inalienable rights, ours by the grace of God, and that government is created by us for our convenience, having only those powers which we choose to give it.
This is the heritage you are about to claim as you come out to join a society made up of those who have preceded you by a few years and some of us by many.
This experiment in man’s relation to man is a few years into its third century. Saying it that way could make it sound quite old. But look at it from another perspective. A few years ago someone figured out that if we could condense the history of life on Earth down to a film that would run 24 hours a day for one year, 365 days (on leap year we could have an intermission), this idea we call the United States would not appear on the screen until three and one half seconds before midnight on December 31.
In those three and a half seconds not only would a totally new concept of society come into being, a golden hope for all mankind, but maybe half the economic activity in world history would take place on this continent. Free to express their genius, individual Americans — men and women in those three and a half seconds — would perform such miracles of invention, construction and production as the world had never seen.
As you join us out there beyond the campus you already know there are great unsolved problems. The careful structure of federalism with built-in checks and balances has become distorted. The central government has usurped powers that properly belong to state and local government; and in so doing has in many ways failed to do those things which are the responsibility of the central government.
All of this has led to a misuse of power and a preemption of the prerogatives of the people and their social institutions.
You are graduating from one of our great private or, if you will, independent universities. Not many years ago such schools were relatively free of government interference. But in recent years as government spawned regulations covering virtually every facet of our lives, our independent and church-supported colleges and universities found themselves included in the network of regulations and the costly blizzard of administrative paperwork government demanded. Today 34 congressional committees and almost 80 subcommittees have jurisdiction over 439 separate laws affecting education at the college level. Virtually every aspect of campus life is now regulated: hiring, firing, promotions, physical plant, construction, record-keeping, fundraising and to some extent curriculum and educational programs.
I hope when you leave this campus you will do so with a feeling of obligation to this, your alma mater. She will need your help and support in the years to come. If ever the great independent colleges and universities like Notre Dame give way to and are replaced by tax-supported institutions, the struggle to preserve academic freedom will have been lost.
Yes, we are troubled today by economic stagnation, brought on by inflated currency, prohibitive taxes and those burdensome regulations. The cost of that stagnation in human terms, mostly among those who are least equipped to survive it, is cruel and inhuman.
Now don’t decide to turn in your diplomas and spend another year on campus. I’ve just given you the bad news. The good news is that something is being done about all this — being done because the people of America have said, “enough already.” We just had gotten so busy for a while that we let things get out of hand, forgot we were the keeper of the power. We forgot to challenge the notion that the state is the principle vehicle of social change; forgot that millions of social interactions among free individuals and institutions can do more to foster economic and social progress than all the careful schemes of government planners.
Well at last we are remembering: remembering that government has certain legitimate functions which it can perform very well ; that it can be responsive to the people; that it can be humane and compassionate; but that when it undertakes tasks that are not its proper province it can do none of them as well or as economically as the private sector.
For too long the government has been fixing things that aren’t broken and inventing miracle cures for which there are no known diseases.
For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values are not — like the ideology and war machines of totalitarian societies — a façade of strength.
We need you, we need your youth, your strength and your idealism to help us make right that which is wrong. I know you have been critically looking at the mores and customs of the past and questioning their value. Every generation does that. But don’t discard the time-tested values upon which civilization is built just because they are old.
More important, don’t let the doom criers and the cynics persuade you that the best is past — that from here it’s all downhill. Each generation sees farther than the generation preceding it because it stands on the shoulders of that generation. You will have opportunities beyond anything we’ve ever known.
The people have made it plain they want an end to excessive government intervention in their lives and in the economy. They want an end to burdensome and unnecessary regulations and to a punitive tax policy that takes from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.
They also want a government that not only can continue to send men through the far reaches of space but can guarantee the citizens they can walk through a park or in their neighborhoods after dark without fear of violence.
And finally, they want to know that this nation has the ability to defend itself against those who would try to pull it down.
All of these things we can do. Indeed a start has already been made. A task force uner the leadership of Vice President George Bush has identified hundreds of regulations which can be wiped out with no harm whatsoever to the quality of life. Their cancellation will leave billions of dollars for productive enterprise and research and development.
The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and for the spread of civilization. The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
William Faulkner at a Nobel Prize ceremony some time back said man “would not merely endure; he will prevail” against the modern world because he will return to “the old verities and truths of the heart.”
“He is immortal,” Faulkner said of man, “because he along among creatures . . . has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
One cannot say those words without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them — Pope John Paull II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world — would be struck by a bullet from a man towards who he could only feel compassion and love.
It was Pope John Paul II who warned last year, in his encyclical on mercy and justice, against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice; that “in the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights.”
For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values are not — like the ideology and war machines of totalitarian societies — a façade of strength. It is time for the world to know that our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all real strength: a belief in a Supreme Being, a law higher than our own.
When it is written, the history of our time will not dwell long on the hardships of our recent past. But history will ask — and our answer will determine the fate of freedom for a thousand years — did a nation born of hope lose hope? Did a people forged by courage find courage wanting? Did a generation steeled by a hard war and a harsh peace forsake honor at the moment of a great climactic struggle for the human spirit?
If history asks such questions, history also answers them: These answers are found in the heritage left by generations of Americans before us. They stand in silent witness to what the world will soon know and history someday record: that in its third century the American nation came of age, affirming its leadership of free men and women, serving selflessly a vision of man with God, government for people and humanity at peace.
This is a noble, rich heritage rooted in the great civilized ideas of the West. And it is yours.
My hope today is that when your time comes—and come it shall—to explain to another generation the meaning of the past and thereby hold out to them the promise of the future, you will recall some of the truths and traditions of which we have spoken. For it is these truths and traditions that define our civilization and make up our national heritage. Now they are yours to protect and pass on.
I have one more hope for you: that when you do speak to the next generation about these things, you will always be able to speak of an America that is strong and free, that you will always find in your hearts an unbounded pride in this much-loved country, this once and future land, this bright and hopeful nation whose generous spirit and great ideals the world still honors.