Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Election Eve Speech Draft Was Lost to History. Until Now.
In a speech drafted but never delivered in the waning weeks of the 1980 campaign, Reagan was to say: “The overriding question is not one of Left or Right. It is one of reversing the flow of power and control to ever more remote institutions.”
May 30, 2018
During the 1980 presidential campaign I served as one of Ronald Reagan’s three principal speechwriters. I came to this task having drafted some 46 radio scripts for Reagan over the previous three years and having read hundreds of other speeches that the man had written himself.
In late October 1980, I was assigned to draft Reagan’s election eve national television speech. The idea—initially—was to summarize the main points of his campaign for the presidency, and to illustrate how his thinking on public issues would serve the American people.
The result was a 16-page, 4,520-word double-spaced draft. The first version was circulated to various campaign personnel, and their suggestions were incorporated in a second draft dated October 27.
Before I could produce a third draft, there was a new development. According to our three-day running polls, Reagan was leading President Jimmy Carter by 10 points nationally and his support was trending upwards. Apparently, our strategists told us, Reagan’s performance had dispelled earlier doubts about his ability to serve, and the voters were increasingly finding him preferable to Carter and independent candidate John Anderson.
So the campaign high command decided—rightly—to not have Reagan give an election eve address. Instead (as I recall) the press office issued a brief statement reiterating his main themes, thanking all those who worked for his cause, and urging the American people to cast their votes for him the following day.
What I have since called “Reagan’s Lost Speech” was thus never cleared for delivery, or even (so far as I know) shown to Reagan. But, with one exception, every proposal in it had been offered by Reagan, either in the campaign or in his years as governor and radio commentator.
The speech contained many of his standbys: a personal story, a Thomas Jefferson quote, a celebration of human scale institutions, a denunciation of too much taxation and regulation, an appeal for entrepreneurial opportunity, and a defense of private property. It reiterated plans for “moving more power to the people, more liberty for the people, and more resources in the pockets of the people to use as they, not someone else, think best.”
Then came the one original idea, which I have always referred to as Tribune of the People. The speech promised a White House office that would “identify the laws and activities of the federal government which have the effect of stripping power away from the people of this country, or stifling independent initiative, or defeating self-help and enterprise at the local level, and of undermining the human scale institutions of our society.” The speech pledged that as president he would give his personal attention to act on the recommendations from this office to roll back too much government.
The idea, which was my invention, stemmed from the Roman tribunes, and more recently from the Vermont Council of Censors, created to alert citizens to departures from the sound principles of the state’s 1777 Constitution. (Unfortunately, the Council was repealed in 1871 when it got too far out in front for women’s right to vote.)
Finally, Reagan would offer his dream that as president he would “capture a vision of America—strong, vital, productive—where the affliction of giantism began to give way before a resurgence of individual liberty, of strong families, of the human-scale institutions that give meaning to our existence, of a new faith in American’s future.”
Brave, inspiring words (or so I thought, and still think), but they were doomed to oblivion. My disappointment was alleviated somewhat by the repeated requests from campaign manager Bill Casey for more copies to distribute—to whom I never knew. Casey was a firm believer in the expanded ownership part in particular, on which he had once (unsuccessfully) campaigned for Congress.
So what impact did the “lost speech” have? So far as I know, none. Once in the Oval Office, Reagan’s style was to make decisions on matters brought to his attention by his top staff, none of whom had any visible interest in any of the ideas contained in this speech.
I managed meetings of the Cabinet Council on Food and Agriculture for 14 months, at which point I decided I was wasting my time, gave up, and returned to my log house on Kirby Mountain, Vermont. There I put on my office wall a fine photo of Ronald Reagan splitting wood on the ranch, alongside portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Bob Taft, Robert La Follette, and my favorite, John Taylor of Caroline, elected three times to the U.S. Senate, who three times resigned and went home to Virginia in disgust.
Below, the draft of that never-delivered speech:
Reagan Final TV Address 11/80 McClaughry Draft 2 10/27/80
Two years ago I did a radio commentary about a man I have never met. His story was so interesting, and it told so much about what life has become in this country, that it has stuck in my mind. And tonight I’d like to share it with you.
The man’s name is Karl Magnuson. In the early ‘70s he held a comfortable position on the faculty of a well-known state university. He was secure and well paid. His students and colleagues respected him. But he was bored and unsatisfied with college life. And after thinking about it a long while, he decided to begin a new life.
He left the university and bought a plot of land in Topaz, Michigan, a town so small it’s not on many maps. Karl became a farmer. He learned to live independently, close to the land. He took part in the life of his local community. But scarcely had he arrived in the great pine forests of northern Michigan when he learned that the people of his little community were under almost constant assault from higher levels of government.
The first problem came from a regional planning commission. Its members were appointed, not elected. They had the idea that all future growth and development in Karl’s region should be confined to two favored “growth center” areas, leaving Topaz in a permanent “no growth” zone.
Karl and his neighbors fought back, and for daring to challenge the sacred cow of regional planning they were branded as right wing nuts.
But while this battle was going on, the US Forest Service appeared on the scene. It wanted to use helicopters to spray the forests with chemical defoliants. That meant spraying people’s homes and livestock, even their children. So Karl and his neighbors went to court and got an injunction to keep from being sprayed by the US government. This won them recognition as concerned environmentalists.
Soon after this, along came the US Navy with a plan to build a massive communications array in Karl’s township. Karl and his neighbors fought back again. This time a prominent state official branded them Communists.
Then back came the Forest Service, considering the idea of designating hundreds of thousands of acres of forest as permanent wilderness. The same people defended their community one more time. For this they were labeled greedy exploiters of the forests. These were the same people who had just been applauded as environmentalists for opposing the toxic spraying of those same forests!
All this made Karl Magnuson begin to wonder. On one day, he and his friends were attacked for being left wingers; the next, for being right wingers. How could this be?
“The Left-Right opposition,” Karl concluded, “functions as a smokescreen that obscures and diverts people’s attention from a real and terrifying process that has developed with frightening rapidity in capitalist and socialist countries alike. The real threat is the enormous enlargement and the decisive centralization of all the means of power and decision.”
And I think he is absolutely right. The overriding question is not one of Left or Right. It is one of reversing the flow of power and control to ever more remote institutions, and of restoring that power to the individual, the family, and the local community.
Richard Goodwin - not one of my advisors, but one who came to Washington twenty years ago for the New Frontier - has said much the same thing. “The most troubling political fact of our age,” he wrote, “is that the growth in central power has been accompanied by a swift and continual diminution of the significance of the individual citizen, transforming him from a wielder into an object of authority.”
This stripping of power and decision making from the individual, the family and the community has had unhappy effects on our people. It has stifled their creative energies. It has tended to make them seekers after permits, rather than doers of fine and generous deeds. It has left them resisting the dictates of a distant authority, instead of working together in a more constructive cause. It has left them disgusted with the institutions of this nation. They are losing faith in a system over which they have come to believe they can have little influence. They are, all too often, simply powerless, and they are angry about it.
As the power of large, centralized institutions grows, the power and vitality of locality, of community, of neighborhood, of parish – all shrink away, until the citizen is left face to face with an all-powerful and little-caring state.
Thirty years ago a young Congressman recognized this truth. “Only by doing the work ourselves,” he said, “by giving generously out of our own pockets, can we hope in the long run to maintain the authority of the people over the state, to ensure that the people remain the master, the state, the servant. Every time that we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders and shift that problem to government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of our people.”
The name of that young Congressman was John F. Kennedy.
And the danger he foresaw thirty years ago has largely come to pass.
Our national government has grown to the point where it taxes away a record 21% of the gross national product of our people.
That same government has found thousands of ways to spend your money, all too frequently in ineffective programs which seem to fold, spindle and mutilate read human beings instead of helping them.
The same government has become an intrusive policeman in the lives of millions of Americans.
Its firearms agents devise elaborate schemes to entrap law-abiding merchants into violations of the law.
Its Interior Department harasses innocent landowners and tries to drive them off their own land.
Its tax collectors seem determined to drive thousands of independent contractors out of business.
Its Labor Department sends out inspectors to find mothers who are earning money at home while caring for their children and puts them out of work.
Its Energy Department tries to impose costly and unnecessary conservation requirements on homebuilders.
Its Justice Department goes to court to urge the busing of children far away from their own neighborhoods and their parents, merely to satisfy some arbitrary ideal of racial balance.
Its Department of Transportation spends years and millions of dollars prescribing the perfect city bus, which, it turns out, builders can’t build and cities don’t want.
Its Department of Education unwittingly tries to destroy some of the nation’s oldest and most respected black colleges and universities.
Its Postal Service prosecutes a lady in Rochester who opens a courier service among downtown offices which provides better, faster and cheaper service without taxpayer subsidy.
In short, our Federal government has become a growing threat to the liberties of our people. At the same time it is consuming their substance through record-breaking taxation. And even that isn’t enough to pay for its excesses. So a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President run an annual deficit, print new money to cover that deficit, cheapen the value of the dollar by twelve cents every year, rob the paycheck of every working man and woman and the savings account for every senior citizen, and unleash a runaway inflation that threatens the integrity of our whole economic system.
And it does another thing. By its ever-present influence, by its web of regulation, by its confiscation of private capital, the federal government is slowly stifling the creative energies of a free people.
Throughout our history, Americans have been remarkable for their creativity, their ability to devise ingenious new solutions to problems. But that creativity is in mortal danger under a government which seems to be heading in the direction of “everything not forbidden is required.”
What is at stake is our liberty. Thomas Jefferson recognized long ago that the mortal enemy of liberty and community is the concentration of power. He asked “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government that has ever existed under the sun?” And he answered “The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.”
The task for us is clear. We must reverse the trend toward the concentration of power into ever more remote and unreachable institutions, and instead make sure that that power is widely distributed among the people – among families, among individuals, among independent businesses and worker organizations, among our local communities and their social institutions.
We must let the genius of our people flower once again, as it did through the years when this brave new country grew into the freest, most prosperous nation on the face of the earth.
To do that will require strong, dedicated national leadership - in the Presidency and in the Congress. And that leadership will have to have the strong support of the American people.
Our first task is to begin to celebrate, once again, the virtue of human scale in our institutions.
Human scale is the scale that human beings can understand and cope with. It is the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church and synagogue and congregation, the women’s group and the luncheon club.
It is the locally owned factory, where the owners are also employees, who live nearby and care about the well-being of their fellow workers and their community.
It’s the small businessmen and women, who personally deal with customers, who put their reputation on the line, who stand behind the firm’s products or services.
It is the farm or consumer cooperative, the town or neighborhood bank that reinvests savings in its community, the democratically governed union local.
The human scale is the town council, the board of selectmen, the precinct captain, the ward leader, the committeeman and woman.
It is this activity on a human scale that creates the fabric of community, and provides the framework for the exercise of responsible liberty.
The human scale defines an arena for civic action, for mutual aid, cooperation, and self help, where people can join together to deal with common problems using their own energies, resources, and leadership.
Indeed, many believe - and I have long been among them - that the strength of our institutions depends critically upon the strength of the human community upon which they rest. When decision making power and resources are stripped away from that human scale community, when a dominating government in city hall or the state capital or, worst of all, in Washington usurps the authority of the people and reduces them to objects to be manipulated –then we are in danger of losing the one thing that has over three centuries made us the great nation we are.
When one looks at the extent to which government giantism – and the inseparable political, social, and economic giantism – now pervades American life, one may well fear for the future of our liberties. But despite this troubling trend, there is much left of the American spirit.
In my campaign, and in my years of public office, I have seen many examples of the rich activity on the human scale which has been the glory of our past and is yet the hope of our future.
I have seen block clubs and neighborhood federations, chambers of commerce, and youth centers. There are community gardens, even in the midst of some of our largest cities. There are land trusts, and co-ops, and neighborhood newspapers. There are appropriate technology projects and community recycling centers. There are projects to help small farmers remain on the land, and to help small business acquire the capital it needs to expand. There are women’s groups and church groups, business groups and labor groups, service clubs and local development corporations.
These are the associations at a human scale that must be nourished if America is to remain strong and free. The great French commentator Alexis DeTocqueville noted this long ago when he observed that “the morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations.”
There is no shortage of ideas for nourishing self-help, association, and voluntary action - only a shortage of will in Washington, where the idea of returning power to the people of this country is viewed with alarm, suspicion, and contempt.
But it is time to begin. And the first thing we can do is to put an end to foolish and dangerous government meddling into things that free people can better deal with in their local communities. This is not to say that the wealthier citizens or areas of this country are to be relieved of the responsibility of assisting the less fortunate. But it does mean that we must begin to devolve responsibilities from the national government to lower levels, levels as close as possible to the people themselves.
A second step, inseparably linked to the first, is to restore to the people the resources their national government has taken from them to pay for things they don’t need and don’t want. We need a substantial across the board income tax cut for individuals 10% in 1982, another 10% in 1983, and another 10% in 1984. This will put money back in the pockets of the people, as well as stimulating a new wave of job-creating investment in our economy. It will give them and their local governments a new opportunity to deal with problems their own way, instead of having solutions dictated to them by a distant bureaucracy which knows or cares little about their needs.
Then we must begin to roll back the wave of over-regulation that plagues this country. People simply cannot act in their own self interest when they are hemmed in on all sides by an imperious government determined to direct their every move.
I say that if a young mother wants to knit at home, her children playing at her feet, to support her family or augment its income, then a humane government will not send an inspector to close her down for violating a half-century old sweatshop law.
I say if people want to come together and organize their own school for their own children, they should not have to do battle with their own government which assaults them for noncompliance with a bunch of bureaucratic guidelines no one ever voted for.
We need to reexamine our tax, securities, and patent laws to encourage investment capital to flow to bright new entrepreneurs. We need to give them a real chance to build their enterprises without having to give up control to large corporations in return for badly needed expansion capital. That should be a high ranking item on the nation’s agenda for the 1980s.
Capital mobility, I might add, is vitally important in the field of new energy and electronic technology. Since the 1973 oil embargo there has been an amazing flowering of invention in these fields. Much of it has been by basement inventors and backyard experimenters and bright young scientists and engineers who left comfortable employment to strike out on their own. These are the people our laws should encourage. History shows us that they, more than the large well-established corporations, provide the real spark of innovation in our economy.
If we stop fixing prices for energy, stop subsidizing favored energy producers, and change our tax laws to increase capital mobility, I am convinced that there will be an astonishing burst of invention in the energy area - new solar devices, batteries, motors, home building ideas, vehicles, windmills, flywheels, gasohol plants - thousands of new ways to produce and use energy efficiently. With these new products and new techniques we can continue to enjoy the benefits of today’s high energy society, but at the same time actually use less energy to achieve it - and thus move away from today’s dangerous dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
We need, too, to restore respect and protection for the basic human right to own, use and exchange privately owned property. Our founding fathers knew, two centuries ago, that, as John Adams put it, “property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist”.
A society of landless serfs, toiling on the estate of a feudal baron, could not aspire to either prosperity or freedom. But with the human right of property ownership secured, and with a real opportunity for all Americans to become property owners, we built a great economic system of free enterprise, and at the same time created a self-governing republic that has been the envy of the world.
Our task today is twofold. We must protect the human right of property ownership from a grasping government which, left unchecked, would gladly swallow up that right in the name of burdensome taxation, national planning, and centralized control. And at the same time, we must work diligently to make sure that as many as possible of our people may share in the American dream.
This means helping people –even tenants of public housing - to achieve home ownership and to keep their home even when threatened by unemployment.
It means helping people - especially women and minorities - to start and expand independent businesses.
It means changing our inheritance laws to make sure no family farm or small business ever has to be broken up and sold to pay estate taxes.
It means encouraging employee stock ownership plans and other worker ownership techniques for helping as many people as possible to earn a share in the wealth of this country.
The matter of ownership should be of greatest importance to minority groups, for historically they have had the least opportunity to join in owning the wealth of America. Dr. Nathan Wright Jr., who chaired the National Conference on Black Power amid the urban disorders of the 1960s, has pointed out how ironic - and tragic – it is that just at the moment in our history when minorities are beginning to get a real chance to acquire real equity in their country, government seems intent on making ownership meaningless for everyone.
Another policy that must be implemented is one of taking resources presently spent by government bureaucracies and letting the people themselves make the decisions about how the money should be spent. I am thinking particularly of community development in our urban neighborhoods.
Under the present block grant program, called CDBG, Washington takes the money from citizens in taxes, rakes off its customary handling charge, adds in a lot of regulations and requirements, and distributes what’s left to city governments for the supposed benefit of the people.
Now when you spend $3.8 billion a year, chances are you will accomplish some good with it. And many cities have, in fact, used CDBG funds in creative ways that really do respond to local needs. But in all too many cases the funds have been spent in ways that please city hall and comply with federal regulations, without improving anything that neighborhood people really care about.
Now I believe that problems should be solved by the people most directly concerned - not by bureaucracies miles away. And who knows best about the problems of our urban neighborhoods? Washington? Your state capitol? City Hall? I doubt it.
I think neighborhood people know best. I think they can put their own money to work effectively to build a better life for themselves and their families.
When I’m President, I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to tell my Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to take some of the discretionary funds under the CDBG plan and distribute them not to city hall, or to organizations that have the political favor of city hall, but directly to all the citizens of a neighborhood.
Under this experiment, every citizen would get a voucher or coupon. It might say, for example, “ten dollars of your money plus this voucher will produce $50 for the neighborhood improvement project of your choice.” The citizen could choose from among dozens of neighborhood projects – some run by city governments, others by church groups, fraternal societies, block clubs, a wide variety of improvement groups.
Now that is really returning power to the people!
It’s giving them, not public officials, the money and letting them, not bureaucrats or politicians, decide how that money should be spent. For after all - whose money is it? It’s their money, and they should get what they want, not what somebody else thinks is good for them.
There will be some who will say that giving power back to the people is a wrong idea. They may say that neighborhood people lack the big picture, and will squander the money on projects of little value. They may say that only through the federal government can your tax dollars be wisely spent.
Well, I think they’re wrong. And when you look at the ridiculous things that the government spends your tax dollars on, when you look at all the times that our urban neighborhoods have been overrun by federally funded urban renewal or freeways or other projects that destroy homes and businesses and places of worship and the rich and varied culture of our communities – you will realize, I think, that the people themselves could scarcely have done any worse.
And I am convinced that the people could do a lot better. Because you’ll use the money the way you want it spent for your own benefit, for the benefit of your families and your neighborhood. You know what works and what doesn’t. You know who you can trust, and who you can’t, because they owe their allegiance to downtown politicians or Washington bureaucrats who pay their salaries.
That’s the kind of creative new approach I’m going to try when I become your President. I don’t want to be President so I can boss an army of bureaucrats who want to run your life. I want to be President so I can reverse the progress of power to Washington, and unleash the power of progress in every neighborhood and every town and every workplace across this great land of ours.
There’s another thing I plan to do when I’m President, and that’s to help the parents of our private school children to meet the costs of private education.
Private education has played an honored role in our history. And I don’t mean just the expensive prep schools. I mean the private and parochial schools in city after city in this country, and the newer alternative schools, and the academies that offer real educational opportunities to minority children.
Our private schools have fought a continuing financial battle to stay open. They have also had to fight a legal battle against an Internal Revenue Service which has threatened their independence and their very existence.
I think it’s time that the parents of private school children were entitled to a tax credit against the tuition they pay. After all, most of them do pay taxes for the support of public schools, but they do not ask public schools to pay the teachers and finance the facilities to educate their children.
A tax credit for private education will do much to strengthen these vital institutions, and keep them alive and vigorous for the benefit of millions of American children who find them preferable to local public education.
This is not an exhaustive list of the things we must do, but it is a list that includes some of the most important tasks ahead. My administration will provide real leadership - leadership from me, as President – to restore power and authority and tax resources to the people and their local communities. We’ll work together to bring back to prominence the human scale institutions so vital to a free and healthy human society.
We’ll constantly look for new ways, try new experiments, seek out new ideas -all with the goal of moving toward more power to the people, more liberty for the people, and more resources in the pockets of the people to use as they, not someone else, think best.
This is a big undertaking. It will demand high level effort and a great deal of skill, wisdom, patience, and persistence from the Reagan Administration.
I propose to create a new kind of office in the Reagan White House. I haven’t thought of a suitable name for it, but I do have an idea of what I’ll ask it to do. I’ll charge it first of all with carefully identifying the laws and activities of the federal government which have the effect of stripping power away from the people of this country, or stifling independent initiative, or defeating self-help and enterprise at the local level, and of undermining the human scale institutions of our society.
As these activities are fully identified, I will ask for a plan for rolling back or reshaping or devising alternatives to those activities. I will expect the head of this office to convene agency heads and work with them, under my direction, to carry out the agreed plan.
In some cases changes can be made by a Cabinet officer alone. In other cases it may require cooperation between two or more agencies. In other cases it may require changes in legislation. I know it can’t all be done in only four short years. There will be many problems, for Washington will not be eager to give up the power it has accumulated at the expense of our people.
But we can make a bold beginning. We can start on a trend which, with the support of the people of this country, can bring back to them and to their local communities much of the power that has been taken from them over the past half century.
I pledge my personal attention to this effort. I can’t promise miracles, for the task is enormous. But on the basis of my eight years as chief executive of the nation’s second largest government in California, I think I can get some solid results over the next few years.
There are many things I hope to achieve in my Presidency. Above all else, I want historians to say of me, later on, that I reduced the terrible threat of war and kept my country at peace. That I brought back prosperity, and with it decent paychecks that Americans could once again cash for honest money. That I was a President of civility, of honor, of moral strength, of compassion for the needy, the helpless, and the elderly.
But I also want it said of me, that I was able to capture a vision of America - strong, vital, productive - where the affliction of giantism began to give way before a resurgence of individual liberty, of strong families, of the human scale institutions that give meaning to our existence, of a new faith in America’s future.
That is my dream, and with God’s help, and yours, I look forward with optimism and enthusiasm to building anew the city on the hill.