Reagan has always been close to South Bend as the film that launched his career was shot right here.
Reagan at Notre Dame
A call to transcendence and duty
or those of us fascinated by Cold War history, the last few months have been a treat, with recognition of two 20th-century giants who played a huge role in peacefully taking down an Evil Empire and ending the longest-running conflict of a bloody century. In February, Americans marked the centennial of the birth of Pres. Ronald Reagan. This May, Catholics marked the beatification of Pope John Paul II.
Even then, that’s just the tip of the historical iceberg. We’re at the 30-year mark of a bunch of events that conservatives in particular should reflect on, instead of just hopping from news cycle to news cycle. The founders of our movement, with the founding editor of National Review among them, would want us to stand athwart history yelling “Stop”; that is, to pause and pay recognition.
In January 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. Mere weeks later, on March 30, he was shot. On May 13, John Paul II likewise was shot. Both men, we learned only later, came perilously close to bleeding to death during emergency surgery. Those events would convince the president and the pope that God had spared them for a special — indeed, historical — purpose.
Some of this has been acknowledged in retrospectives in recent weeks. What will not get its due, however, was a special speech given by President Reagan on May 17, 1981, at Notre Dame. And here, I encourage conservatives to listen up and take notes.
The occasion was Notre Dame’s commencement, and Reagan gave the assembled undergrads a lesson to remember, including one of his first presidential predictions on the demise of Communism:
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. . . . It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
The visionary quality of Reagan’s words is evident only in retrospect. Though no one else was making such audacious predictions, and though many scoffed at Reagan, those last pages were indeed being written. Unbeknownst to the world, Communism’s grip on Eastern Europe would not survive the decade. Even the USSR would disintegrate peacefully. On Dec. 25, 1991, a helpless Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the USSR, formally turning out the lights.
For Reagan, that process was aided by an indispensable ally, John Paul II, who had been shot only four days before the Notre Dame speech. Reagan asked the Notre Dame faithful to pray for John Paul, and commended him for his recent encyclical attacking Communism.
The Notre Dame speech was crafted by chief speechwriter Tony Dolan, with a few edits from the president, as can be seen in a marked-up draft at the Reagan Presidential Library (“Presidential Speeches,” Box 1, Folder 7). As Dolan is always quick to acknowledge, the speech is “Reagan’s,” as it was written quintessentially for Reagan alone, based on his ideas, his voice, and with phrases he himself had used. Dolan could not have written such a speech for anyone but Reagan, nor would anyone but Reagan have signed off on it.
In fact, the speech as delivered was highly personal, begun with lengthy extemporaneous remarks by Reagan. It wove together quotes and anecdotes, impromptu and prewritten, establishing Reagan’s theme of a larger cause and challenge — a challenge for all of America. It was a complex, enigmatic speech that can only be fully understood today, long after Reagan’s presidency and with current knowledge of what Reagan was secretly pursuing behind the scenes. Reagan telegraphed its unorthodox nature in these opening lines:
The temptation is great to use this forum as an address on a great international or national issue. . . . Indeed, this is somewhat traditional. So, I wasn’t surprised when I read in several reputable journals that I was going to deliver an address on foreign policy and the economy. I’m not going to talk about either.
This wasn’t quite true. Or maybe it was. Reagan’s objective was much larger — yes, untraditional — as if transcending the economy and foreign policy. Reagan drew upon dramatic remarks by Winston Churchill: “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.”
As Dolan knew, Reagan had first employed that Churchill quote back in the classic 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” the speech that launched his career and his crusade against the USSR. To Reagan, the obligation Americans must meet was their duty to fight expansionist, atheistic Soviet Marxism. Was America worthy of that challenge? He responded in the affirmative, citing a protracted history of Americans meeting tests.
Reagan then followed the Churchill passage with a personal story from his movie Knute Rockne, All-American. The film was always seen as a celebration of Notre Dame football, but Reagan was about to make it much more. He provided a most instructive parable, one that I’ve never seen elsewhere from Reagan. The president stated:
Now, today I hear very often, “Win one for the Gipper.” . . . But let’s look at the significance of that story. [Coach Knute] Rockne could have used Gipp’s dying words to win a game any time. But eight years went by following the death of George Gipp before Rock revealed those dying words, his deathbed wish.
And then he told the story at halftime to a team that was losing, and one of the only teams he had ever coached that was torn by dissension and jealousy and factionalism. The seniors on that team were about to close out their football careers without learning or experiencing any of the real values that a game has to impart. None of them had known George Gipp. They were children when he played for Notre Dame. It was to this team that Rockne told the story and so inspired them that they rose above their personal animosities. For someone they had never known, they joined together in a common cause and attained the unattainable.
We were told when we were making the picture of one line that was spoken by a player during that game. We were actually afraid to put it in the picture. The man who carried the ball over for the winning touchdown was actually injured on the play. We were told that as he was lifted on the stretcher and carried off the field he was heard to say, “That’s the last one I can get for you, Gipper.”
Now, it’s only a game. And maybe to hear it now, afterward — and this is what we feared — it might sound maudlin and not the way it was intended. But is there anything wrong with young people having an experience, feeling something so deeply, thinking of someone else to the point 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.
Why this story in this speech? Reagan, of course, had played George Gipp in this movie; it was his character who uttered the unforgettable deathbed line, “Go out there and win one for the Gipper.” Throughout his political life he used that line as a kind of signature, often referring to himself as “the Gipper,” as did others. Yet here, in applying the story to a larger cause, Reagan appeared to be linking himself to Rockne, not Gipp.
Just as Coach Rockne rallied a team torn apart by “dissension and jealousy and factionalism,” Coach Reagan seemed to be rallying a team. He wanted this group to join “someone they had never known” — apparently himself, as a political leader — to “attain the unattainable,” just as that particular Notre Dame team had for a George Gipp they had never met.
This was not the first time Reagan had used a commencement address to rally a group of students to the cause. The challenge at Notre Dame was eerily similar to one he had made to the female students of tiny William Woods College way back in June 1952, whom he asked to join him in the battle, the grand ideological struggle, to “push back the darkness over the stadium of humanity.” That darkness was Soviet Communism.
Reagan was bent on motivating his young countrymen to rise above their personal animosities. A country divided and factionalized could not meet the Cold War challenge with confidence.
From the Gipp story, Reagan cast his gaze in a loftier direction:
When it’s written, the history of our time won’t dwell long on the hardships of the recent past. But history will ask . . . Did a people forged by courage find courage wanting? Did a generation steeled by hard war and a harsh peace forsake honor at the moment of great climactic struggle for the human spirit? . . . [T]he answers are to be 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, affirmed its leadership of free men and women serving selflessly a vision of man with God, government for people, and humanity at peace.
Someday, Reagan believed, history would judge that America reached maturity by affirming “its leadership of free men and women serving selflessly a vision of man with God.” This was an implicit recognition and rejection of the atheistic Soviet vision. Only four paragraphs earlier in the speech, he had predicted that Communism was nearing its final days; the next three paragraphs continued that theme. Reagan concluded:
For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show to the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values, are not — like the ideology and war machine of totalitarian societies — just a façade of strength. It is time for the world to know our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.
“The time has come.” Those values, which America should dare to show to the world, said Reagan, derive from the greatest of strengths: from God, from belief in God, and from the wisdom of God’s law.
It is interesting to note how Reagan himself viewed these remarks. Seven years later, in March 1988, he returned to Notre Dame for a final rally. He mentioned that in 1981 he had come to give “one of the first major addresses of my presidency,” and that his remarks included his prediction that the West would transcend Communism. He said America could achieve that objective because its spiritual values and inner strength were so great.
In sum, the May 1981 Notre Dame address ought to be recognized as one of Reagan’s finest and most revealing, one that conservatives especially should know and appreciate. It’s really a quite profound, poignant speech that captures the essence of Reagan’s presidency, his faith, his attack on the USSR, and his view of an exceptional America.
It is indeed, as Reagan put it, about all of us Americans — from our homes to the halls of Congress to the White House — understanding that “when great causes are on the move in the world,” as they are today as well, we learn that we’re spirits, not animals. We sense and know that there’s something going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, “whether we like it or not,” spells duty.
— Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.