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SOTU Flashback: When Reagan Showed Us What Real Political Leadership Is Like

Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989 Collection: White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later this week we’ll both preview and review President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. But in the meantime, we thought readers might want to reminisce about what politics used to be.

Ronald Reagan started his 1987 SOTU address with warm congratulations for the new Speaker, Democrat Jim Wright.

And he concluded it with an observance of the Constitution’s 200th birthday that represented the best of America’s political traditions. It was unifying. Inspiring. Optimistic. Unabashedly patriotic. In fact, unapologetically dripping with American “exceptionalism.”

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Joe Biden is no Ronald Reagan (and neither is Donald Trump). But could we ever see such an address again? Or have we descended too far into partisanship, pessimism, petulance, and downright pettiness?

As we await the president’s latest edition of this time-honored ritual, enjoy this transcendent moment courtesy of The Great Communicator. You can follow Reagan’s stirring conclusion starting at 1:21:53 and read the transcript below:

We’re entering our third century now, but it’s wrong to judge our nation by its years. The calendar can’t measure America because we were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom–with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do, no end point to our hopes. 

The United States Constitution is the impassioned and inspired vehicle by which we travel through history. It grew out of the most fundamental inspiration of our existence: that we are here to serve Him by living free–that living free releases in us the noblest of impulses and the best of our abilities; that we would use these gifts for good and generous purposes and would secure them not just for ourselves and for our children but for all mankind. 

Over the years–I won’t count if you don’t–nothing has been so heartwarming to me as speaking to America’s young, and the little ones especially, so fresh-faced and so eager to know. Well, from time to time I’ve been with them–they will ask about our Constitution. And I hope you Members of Congress will not deem this a breach of protocol if you’ll permit me to share these thoughts again with the young people who might be listening or watching this evening. 

I’ve read the constitutions of a number of countries, including the Soviet Union’s. Now, some people are surprised to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional? 

Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it’s so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. 

In those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those countries what they’re allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the Government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history has just exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant. 

And you young people out there, don’t ever forget that. Someday you could be in this room, but wherever you are, America is depending on you to reach your highest and be your best–because here in America, we the people are in charge.

Just three words: We the people–those are the kids on Christmas Day looking out from a frozen sentry post on the 38th parallel in Korea or aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. A million miles from home, but doing their duty. 

We the people–those are the warmhearted whose numbers we can’t begin to count, who’ll begin the day with a little prayer for hostages they will never know and MIA families they will never meet. Why? Because that’s the way we are, this unique breed we call Americans. 

We the people–they’re farmers on tough times, but who never stop feeding a hungry world. They’re the volunteers at the hospital choking back their tears for the hundredth time, caring for a baby struggling for life because of a mother who used drugs. And you’ll forgive me a special memory–it’s a million mothers like Nelle Reagan who never knew a stranger or turned a hungry person away from her kitchen door. 

We the people–they refute last week’s television commentary downgrading our optimism and our idealism. They are the entrepreneurs, the builders, the pioneers, and a lot of regular folks–the true heroes of our land who make up the most uncommon nation of doers in history. You know they’re Americans because their spirit is as big as the universe and their hearts are bigger than their spirits. 

We the people–starting the third century of a dream and standing up to some cynic who’s trying to tell us we’re not going to get any better. Are we at the end? Well, I can’t tell it any better than the real thing–a story recorded by James Madison from the final moments of the Constitutional Convention, September 17th, 1787. 

As the last few members signed the document, Benjamin Franklin–the oldest delegate at 81 years and in frail health–looked over toward the chair where George Washington daily presided. At the back of the chair was painted the picture of a Sun on the horizon. And turning to those sitting next to him, Franklin observed that artists found it difficult in their painting to distinguish between a rising and a setting Sun. 

Well, I know if we were there, we could see those delegates sitting around Franklin–leaning in to listen more closely to him. And then Dr. Franklin began to share his deepest hopes and fears about the outcome of their efforts, and this is what he said: “I have often looked at that picture behind the President without being able to tell whether it was a rising or setting Sun: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.” 

Well, you can bet it’s rising because, my fellow citizens, America isn’t finished. Her best days have just begun. 

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.Ronald Reagan was the 40th president of the United States.