President Reagan's farewell address — the speechwriting hits of Peggy Noonan
It's 33 years since President Reagan left the Oval office, and he departed with a televised farewell address that is celebrated as a speechwriting masterclass.
Last year I had James Button on the podcast, a great speechwriter himself, and he said that the best book he ever read about the art of speechmaking was Peggy Noonan’s ‘On Speaking Well’.
Noonan wrote some of President Reagan’s finest and most famous speeches. The best known is probably his televised address following the Challenger space shuttle disaster:
President Reagan had the right voice and tone for this one, and the rule of speechwriting is that the politician always gets the credit, but it’s hard not to marvel at Noonan’s ability to find an ‘on this day’ connection to salute the glory of human exploration:
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God”.”
Another Peggy Noonan composition that has gone down as one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century is Reagan’s speech at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. If speechwriting is storytelling, here is Saving Private Ryan at the lectern:
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.
The reason I thought of honouring Noonan, and Reagan, is that the 11th of January 1989 was the date of Reagan’s farewell address. It has the Reagan hallmarks, folksy style, America first nationalism, religiosity, a staunch defence of neoliberalism, and I struggle with most of that content. But the form of the speech, the way a device like a White House window is used to connect Reagan’s tenure to the great history of the nation, it’s all so skilfully done, and there’s a reason, again, that Noonan’s composition is an all time classic:
People ask how I feel about leaving, and the fact is parting is "such sweet sorrow." The sweet part is California, and the ranch, and freedom. The sorrow? The goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall, and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that's the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the battle of Bull Run. Well, I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river. Reflections at a Window
I've been thinking a bit at that window. I've been reflecting on what the past eight years have meant, and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one - a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor.
It was back in the early Eighties, at the height of the boat people, and the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat - and crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. 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."
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn't get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I.
It’s interesting to read that ‘Hello, Freedom Man’ paragraph. There is no corner of the modern Republican party where that sort of celebration of immigration or boat people could be tolerated.
The Farewell Address was celebrated in an excellent podcast called ‘It Was Said’ hosted by John Meacham.
Meacham also did an episode on the Normandy D-Day anniversary speech:
I’ve tried to get Peggy Noonan on the podcast. She still writes columns and books and has had a long career as a conservative commentator. I had no luck making a request through her website. If you know her, I’d love half an hour to talk to one of the legends of American speechwriting.
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