Here you are. You’ve made it to Hillsdale, and are embarking on one of the most rewarding and most difficult journeys of your life so far. I hope that you find Hillsdale to be everything you’ve wished for and more, and to start off on the right foot, I want to indulge the Ronald-Reagan-fanatics as well as those of you who are weary of the name after hallowing the halls of Hillsdale for several years. He is an example that can continue to inspire us no matter what season of life we are entering into.
After recently watching the CNN documentary series “The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us,” I could not help but juxtapose the legacy of Reagan’s presidency during the 1980s that commentators raved and analyzed with the recent release of a 1971 phone call tape recording with President Nixon. With these distinct reflections, I found Reagan to simultaneously serve as an example of the American spirit and the crisis of humanity.
Reagan believed in the strength and greatness of the American people, and the American people believed in his message. He believed America was bruised, not broken, and America could return to the greatness it once boasted when its people learned to trust their fellow man.
In his First Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1981, Reagan said, “It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
The tasks laid before us at Hillsdale College are not for the faint-hearted. Rather, they provide us with a mission. We must, as Reagan did, believe in our fellow man and peer, and believe in the strength of our capabilities and spirit when moving through this four-year journey of academic aggression while growing in maturity.
We make mistakes while embarking on new adventures, and some of our missteps will and do affect the lives of those around us. Reagan understood in the midst of difficult circumstances the difference between resolution and holding others accountable for their unjust actions, and the times for owning up to his own mistakes.
When addressing Americans concerning the Iran-Contra Affair, President Reagan said, “…I want to talk about some of the lessons we have learned. I was stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray. Yet the buck does not stop with Admiral Pointdexter as he stated in his testimony. It stops with me. I am the one who is ultimately accountable to the American people.”
Failure is inevitable but the grace with which we recognize our missteps and take accountability will change the trajectory for our future failings, as well as current upheaval.
But in the midst of his triumphs and failures, Reagan found the importance of never taking himself or his critics too seriously. During his 1984 reelection campaign, many Americans were concerned with Reagan’s frailty and age. With class and good humor, during a presidential debate, Reagan was asked if he had the physical capability to work sleepless nights, to which Reagan wittily responded, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
In recent months, the release of 1971 tapes which record Reagan remarking racial slurs to President Nixon have caused concern and controversy. But is it proper to smear an entire lifetime of goodness, faith, and class over a tasteless choice of words?
This is not to be cavalier and dismissive. President Reagan would have held himself responsible for these words, as he did with so many actions during his presidency.
We all make tasteless comments and lack of discretion with our words. We all fall short. We all have the capability to smear any moment of glory with a past mistake. But these mistakes, although defining a moment and lapse of judgment, does not necessarily define who we are or are becoming. You have failed. And, you will fail, again. There is no excuse for bad behavior and disrespectful language. But there is no excuse to allow failure to hold you back from your full potential — the potential that Reagan believed the American people were capable of maximizing.
Reagan was a model of faith in the American spirit and human will. Reagan focused on the positive, even when the circumstances around him were discouraging. Reagan took responsibility and accountability for his shortcomings. And, Reagan understood that life was too short to let criticism keep you from fulfilling your God-given potential.
The same can be said for this chapter of life that is college. It is brief. It happens to be the same length as a presidential term. And, it is an inevitable period of victories and failures. Reignite the spirit of the Reagan Revolution in your hearts: Trust in your fellow peer and the spirit of the American youth. Recognize the triumphs among the trials. Take responsibility for your mistakes, because you will make them. And don’t take yourself so seriously.
Whether you’ve just arrived to campus or are entering your final year, remember Reagan’s example. Remember his parting words to the American people, as he said, “They called it the Reagan Revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense…Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling when it’ll end.”