Speech at Reagan Library

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Speech at Reagan Library
by John McCain

Thank you, Duke, and thank you especially, Nancy, my dear friend.

It is a great privilege to be here today, and I am very indebted to Mrs. Reagan and the trustees of the Reagan Library for the invitation to address you in the place where Americans remember and revere the life and presidency of that most visionary and steadfast apostle of freedom, Ronald Reagan.

With your indulgence, I'll offer a few thoughts about the ideals that President Reagan ran for office to advance, and how well his ideals have fared since he left office, in the world and in the country he loved. Then, I would be very pleased to listen to any questions, comments or insults you might have for me.

When I was first elected to Congress, I was one of many newly elected members who claimed with pride to be disciples of Ronald Reagan. I am as proud of that distinction today as I was then, and as admiring of the legacy of President Reagan as I was once inspired by him to enlist as a foot soldier in his revolution to reform the practices and policies of our government, to reinvigorate our Republic, and to advance her ideals to the farthest outreaches of tyranny.

President Reagan took the oath of office during difficult times for America. High inflation, high unemployment, high taxes, low productivity, and various other challenges had sowed widespread doubts about the continued vitality of our economy, while encouraging America's political leaders to place more faith in the growth of government than the wonders of free markets. Our most powerful adversary, the Soviet Union, seemed to be winning the Cold War, as it marched into Afghanistan, strengthened its terrifying arsenal, and claimed more victories in proxy wars in the Third World, as many of our allies seemed to have become demoralized in that "long, twilight struggle," and less resolved to defend themselves against an expansionist and implacably hostile foe. Revolution in Iran had resulted in the humiliating spectacle of a third rate power holding American diplomats hostage, an expression of contempt for the resolve of the United States and the values of the civilized world.

They were difficult times, indeed, though obviously no where near as challenging as the crisis faced by an earlier President when he entered office. The strength of Abraham Lincoln's resolve to restore the Union, whatever the terrible cost to do so, was his unshakeable faith that in America any father's child could come to occupy the same place that his father's child had attained. And that uniquely American conviction also inspired Ronald Reagan to lead his country, to reach his great place in our history an in the hearts of Americans.

I doubt Ronald Reagan was much surprised to become president, despite his humble origins. He believed such a privilege was within the reach of any American with principles, talent and industry, and that once attained the office was to be held with great care to reserve for succeeding generations the blessings of liberty that had so enriched his life. His patriotism, which he expressed so eloquently in public remarks, was never affected. He believed every word. Nor was his confidence an actor's performance. He lived in a shining city upon a hill, and he never forgot it.

That is the faith he brought to Washington, the faith that helped restore America's confidence, repair her fortunes, and revitalize her mission to secure our interests and promote our values in a hostile world.

For the first time in a very long time, he made core conservative values - which he knew were shared by the majority of the American people - the foundation of government policy. I think all Reagan Republicans would describe the core values of a conservative as support for a strong national defense; respect for the rights reserved to the states and the values of local communities; confidence in the wonders of free markets; support for lower taxes and opposition to unnecessary government regulation; and lastly, and very importantly, belief that the government that governs best governs least. I don't think any Reagan Republican would disagree that fiscal restraint and small government are bedrock principles of conservatives.

So why has our party, the party of small government, lately adopted the practices of our opponents who believe the bigger the government the better? I'm afraid it because at times we value our incumbency more than our principles. We came to office to reduce the size of government. Lately, we have increased the size of government in order to stay in office. And soon, soon, if we don't remember what we were elected to do, we will lose both our principles and our office, and we will leave as part of our legacy a mountain of debt and bankrupt entitlement programs that our children's grandchildren will be suffering from long after we have departed this earth.

I know you're all aware of the various scandals concerning the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, his abuse of his clients' trust and his relationships with members of Congress and their staffs. I won't dwell on it today other than to note that one welcome consequence of this discouraging story is that it has forced more of us to re-examine the way we do business in Washington. Various reforms affecting the relationship between members of Congress and lobbyists have been discussed and advocated, although, I'm sorry to say, Congress has not yet done enough to address the problem in a very significant way. Unless we reform the way Congress spends your money -- a system that practically invites abuse, while injecting steroids into the growth of government and ballooning our debt -- whatever other reforms are adopted to prevent some future Abramoff scandal will, in the end, like all reforms that address the symptoms and not the cause of a problem, lose their effectiveness. My friends, the best and only lasting answer to the problem of political corruption is a smaller government.

There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying or with government officials meeting with lobbyists to consider their concerns as we make policies that affect the interests they represent. Americans, represented individually or by trade associations, social organizations, or labor unions have a right to petition their government. Where corruption can easily occur is when a lobbyist, knowing the rules of the game, receives special treatment for his or her client, irrespective of the public interest, simply by enjoying a relationship with a member of Congress who can, by the process we call earmarking, provide their clients a benefit that is seldom scrutinized by Congress as a whole.

Let me use last year's highway bill to illustrate how the practice of earmarking has grown and become such a tempting target for abuse. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it was ten billion dollars over his budget, and contained over a hundred earmarks. He remarked at the time of his veto that he hadn't seen that much pork since he had "handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair." The highway bill we passed last year, and which the President signed into law, was twelve billion dollars over his request, and contained 6,731 earmarks, which included the now infamous "bridge to nowhere." That's quite an explosion in the growth of earmarks, which you have the privilege of paying for with your gas taxes. And it represents 6,371 separate opportunities for a lobbyist to ask a single member of Congress for a favor that the rest of Congress won't vote on and most members won't even notice.

The total number of earmarks in spending bills has grown from 4,126 in 1994, the last year of Democratic control, to 14,404 in 2004. That's a 240 percent increase in ten years time. In dollars, the cost borne by taxpayers for earmarks has nearly doubled. My friends, that's not a record Ronald Reagan would have been proud of. And it's not a record Reagan Republicans should be proud of today. We need to stop this . . . now, and remember, as Ronald Reagan always remembered, that we were sent to Washington because of the principles we pledged to defend, not because our constituents thought we needed a change of address.

Among those principles we shared with President Reagan was his belief in America's mission to advance our political ideals globally, even if we had to sacrifice in the short term to do so, knowing, as he did, that our security was best protected by the progress of our values. Now, as we face security challenges that are different and more diffuse than that which faced us during the Cold War, some on both the Left and the Right argue that our advocacy of democratic values in Iraq and elsewhere is reckless and in vain; that freedom only works for wealthy nations, and Western cultures. Others argue that we are partially responsible for the enemies we face, if not the tactics they use, by meddling in the world when we should stay within the borders of our own prosperous country, protect ourselves from attacks abroad, protect our industries from foreign competition, and our culture from new immigrants. Some of these critics are of the garden variety campus left. Some were once determined Cold Warriors who believe that it was enough to have opposed communism and once the Soviet Union was defeated, American world leadership became an expensive vanity.

But such a cramped view of American purpose is blind to the futility of building walls in a world made remarkably smaller because of the success of American values. A world where our political and economic values have a realistic chance of becoming a global creed was the principle object of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy and of American policy for much of the last century, and we should not resent the consequences of our success.

We are threatened today by cruel and hateful proponents of an ideology that abhors our values. But they operate more freely because we and our values succeeded in defeating a much more powerful enemy without the global nuclear holocaust we once feared would result from our conflict. We will defeat these enemies, too. They are weaker than us in men and arms, and weaker still in causes. They fight to express an irrational hatred for the progress of our ideals, a hatred that has fallen time and again to the armies and courage of the righteous. We will never, never surrender. They will.

Many Americans are appropriately concerned about the wave of illegal immigration into our country. Clearly, we need to do a better job securing our borders and enforcing our laws. All Republicans agree with that. But the great majority of Republicans and Americans recognize that there are many jobs here that Americans won't do, and that we would benefit from immigration policies that allow people who wish to escape poverty and injustice in their countries to work here. Most Republicans also realize that there is no practical or humane way to deport the 11 to 12 million people already working here illegally, and that we should encourage these people to emerge from the shadows of this underground economy, distinguish themselves from those who came here illegally to threaten our security, pay fines, back taxes, learn English, and abide by our laws by going to the back of the line for legal status.

Some very vocal Republicans believe passionately that we must build a 1000 mile wall, throw small and large business employers in prison and deport every single illegal immigrant. Most Americans won't stand for that, however, because they understand how serious are the social, economic, political, and humanitarian consequences of such a draconian and utterly impractical solution.

Some who believe this is the answer have taken counsel only of their fears, which in some instances, thankfully for only a small minority, have provoked them to speak and think in ways that do not reflect the values of our generous and decent society, the values Ronald Reagan stood for all his life. Ronald Reagan never feared anyone who came here to earn a piece of the American dream by his or her industry, talent and loyalty to our ideals. Patriotism in this country is more than nationalism. It has never been about blood or soil. It is a shared commitment to an ideal - that all people are given by their Creator inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As long as people pledged their sincere allegiance to that sublime ideal, Ronald Reagan did not denounce them as alien, he called them his countrymen.

Seven years before that grotesque impediment to liberty - the Berlin Wall - was breached by the stronger forces of human yearning, Ronald Reagan predicted to a skeptical world the inevitable triumph of freedom.

"Let us be shy no longer," he encouraged. "Let us go to our strength. Let us offer hope."Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable."

Ronald Reagan was a proud Cold Warrior; proud to be an enemy of the forces he rightly denounced as evil. But being an anti-communist was never enough for him. He knew that America's efforts to help humanity secure the blessings of liberty are what truly distinguish us from other nations.

That doesn't mean that we have to risk lives and resources needlessly, lurching ineffectually from one crisis to another. But it does mean that we should defend our interests and values when they are threatened; that strength and courage should be the qualities of our statecraft; that we should make our way in this complex and dangerous world as President Reagan did: sure of ourselves, firm in our purpose and proud of our heritage.

When I was a prisoner-of-war, the Vietnamese went to great lengths to restrict the news from home to the statements and activities of prominent opponents to the war. They wanted us to believe that America had forgotten us. They never mentioned Ronald Reagan to us, or played his speeches over the camp loudspeakers. No matter. We knew about him. New additions to our ranks told us how Governor and Mrs. Reagan were committed to our liberation and our cause.

When we came home we were eager to meet the Reagans to thank them for their concern. But more than gratitude drew us to them. We were drawn to them because they were among the few prominent Americans who did not subscribe to the then fashionable notion that America had entered her inevitable decline.

We came home to a country that had lost a war and the best sense of itself; a country beset by social and economic problems. Assassinations, riots, scandals, contempt for political, religious and educational institutions gave the appearance that we had become a dysfunctional society. Patriotism was sneered at. The military scorned. And the world anticipated the collapse of our global influence. The great, robust, confident Republic that had given its name to the last century seemed exhausted.

Ronald Reagan believed differently. He possessed an unshakable faith in America's spirit and greatness that proved more durable than the prevailing political sentiments of the time. And his confidence was a tonic to men who had come home eager to put the war behind us and for the country to do likewise.

Our country has a long and honorable history. A lost war or any other calamity should not destroy our confidence or weaken our purpose. We were a good country before Vietnam and we are a good country after Vietnam. In all of history, you cannot find a better one. Of that, Ronald Reagan was supremely confident, and he became President to prove it.

His was a faith that shouted at tyrants to "tear down this wall." Such faith, such patriotism requires a great deal of courage and love to profess. And I will always revere him for it.

When walls were all I had for a world, I learned about a man whose courage and love gave me hope in a desolate place. His faith honored us, as it honored all Americans, as it honored all freedom-loving people. So, I say to my Party, to my friends on the Right and the Left, let us honor him by holding his faith as our own, and let us, too, tear down walls to freedom. That, my friends, is what Americans do when they believe in themselves.

Thank you.