Reagan's First Inauguration Set Tone for Change
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 8, 2004 It really was like "Morning in America," as some of Ronald Reagan's campaign commercials suggested.
President Ronald Reagan salutes a cadet at the U.S. Air
Force Academy commencement in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 30,
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
In addition to the Republican Party faithful who flocked to the ceremony, hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians came too. This was the "Hollywood" event for a movie-star president. Many in the crowd had grown up watching Ronald Reagan in the movies or as the host of CBS' "The General Electric Theater" or the syndicated program "Death Valley Days" on television.
Rumors flew fast and furious on that cold morning about "the hostages" the 52 Americans captured on Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian students broke into the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They were beaten, starved and mistreated with the collusion of the fundamentalist Muslim government of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
For 444 days, the cloud of the hostage situation in Iran loomed over the administration of President Jimmy Carter. In April 1980, five American service members were killed and seven wounded in the botched "Desert One" rescue attempt. The American eagle seemed powerless.
But between the election on Nov. 4, 1980, and Inauguration Day, there was a flurry of negotiations with the Iranians for the release of the hostages. News outlets were expecting the release at any moment, and people in the crowd overhearing others speak of the situation would ask, "Anything new?"
But noon came with no word from Tehran, and power shifted from President Carter to President Reagan.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Ill. He was the son of John E. (Jack) and Nelle Reagan. The future president referred to himself often as a "son of the heartland." The president's father moved around the area often and finally settled in Dixon, Ill., which was what the president considered home.
The future president grew to be 6 feet, 1 inch tall and served as a lifeguard at Lowell Park. He was credited with saving 77 lives in the seven summers he worked there.
Reagan went to Eureka (Ill.) College and majored in economics and sociology. While there, he became interested in drama. He was elected student body president at the school and graduated in 1932. The year was the height of the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were out of work, but this handsome, if nearsighted, young man set the goal of getting into pictures.
Reagan took a job as a sports radio announcer in Davenport, Iowa. He "re- created" Cubs baseball games from wire service copy.
In 1937, Reagan left for California and signed as an actor with Warner Brothers. His most famous role was that of George Gipp, the Notre Dame football star in "Knute Rockne All American," made in 1940. He also starred in the 1942 film "Kings Row." In 1937, Reagan joined the Army National Guard and was soon made a cavalry second lieutenant. The cavalry back then still rode horses.
He married his co-star in the film "Brother Rat" Jane Wyman in 1940. With America's entry into World War II, Reagan was called to active duty. He was assigned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif. Reagan made more than 400 training films with the unit, and was discharged as a captain in 1945.
All in all, Reagan made 53 feature films in his Hollywood career. In 1949, his marriage to Wyman ended in divorce and in 1952 he married Nancy Davis. From 1947 to 1952 and again from 1959 to 1960, Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Politically, Reagan started as a member of the Democratic Party. But even in the 1950s he was beginning to lean toward the Republican Party. He campaigned in 1952 and 1956 as a "Democrat for Eisenhower," and in 1960 campaigned for Richard Nixon. In 1962 he officially changed his party affiliation.
His speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater for president really launched his political career. In 1966, he ran for governor of California and beat incumbent Edmund G. Brown in a landslide. He was re-elected in 1970.
In 1976, Reagan challenged President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination. He lost, and Ford lost to Carter. In 1980, he received the nomination, and with his running mate, George H.W. Bush, received 51 percent of the popular vote to 41 percent for Carter.
The world of 1981 was far different from today. The Soviet Union was still communist. Leonid Brezhnev was the undisputed ruler of what Reagan came to call "the Evil Empire." The Soviets occupied Afghanistan and subjugated all of Eastern and most of Central Europe. The Warsaw Pact confronted NATO along the Iron Curtain.
A total of 350,000 American service members were based in Europe to counter the Soviet menace. But the American military was not a very effective force. Thousands of mid-level enlisted people and officers exactly the people needed to make the military function were voting with their feet. The all-volunteer force, then less than 10 years old, could not offer the pay and benefits to attract or keep good people.
On the civilian side, inflation was running in double digits, unemployment was rising, and crime concerned Americans. President Carter said the country was suffering through a "national malaise" and seemed powerless to do anything about it.
In stepped Reagan. After taking the oath of office, Reagan strode to the dais. As the new president began his inaugural address, the sun broke through the clouds. A woman in the crowd said that even Hollywood couldn't have written a better script.
But what followed was even better. In his speech that afternoon, the new president injected confidence into the American people.
"If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before," he said. "Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price."
Reagan, with his unbounded confidence in Americans, said Americans "have every right to dream heroic dreams." He said that in the search for heroes, Americans had only to look to one another. "You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates," he said. "Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond.
"You meet heroes across a counter, and they're on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life."
Reagan also said America would fight for what it believes in. "As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people," he said. "We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever."
He warned adversaries to not mistake America's desire for peace for softness. "Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will," he said. "When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so, we have the best chance of never having to use that strength."
Reagan left to a thundering ovation, and as he met with congressional leaders, word came that the hostages had been freed. What had been happiness and a sense of anticipation turned to joy.
During his term in office he went on to accomplish many things. He rebuilt the U.S. military. He played a part in Middle East peace. He called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. He negotiated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with the Soviets.
He did many things, but his first day in office set the tone for his presidency. That day, he inspired Americans to dream again.