Paul  Kengor

This January 20 marks the anniversary of two unforgettable inaugural addresses from two beloved presidents, Democrat and Republican: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. For Kennedy’s speech, this is the golden anniversary, 50 years; for Reagan, 30 years.

Both speeches were extraordinary. Kennedy’s lasting line was, of course, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Reagan’s most memorable phrase was probably this one: “We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline…. Let us begin an era of national renewal.” Reagan’s line struck the New York Times, which, the next day, thrust the words “era of national renewal” atop page one.

In both inaugurals, there was no mistaking the message, or the mood that followed. Both initiated a profound, palpable, quite immediate change in the nation’s morale and sense of itself. The shift was dramatic. Of course, it wasn’t just the speeches that made the difference, but the men who made them, with the inaugurals their starting points.

As evidence of the specialness of these two men and their presidencies, consider what happened in between. Between Kennedy and Reagan there was an extended bipartisan disaster, with two Democrats as bookends, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and two Republicans in between, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Those four presidencies ended in defeat, despair, debilitation, or even ruin. LBJ was destroyed by Vietnam, and decided not to pursue reelection. Nixon resigned in disgrace and suffered a mental breakdown. Ford, not an inspiring figure, never won an election. Carter lost 44 states to Reagan. Harvard’s renowned presidential scholar, the late Richard Neustadt, remarked that watching Jimmy Carter, one wondered if the presidency was “even possible.”

Amid all this was Vietnam, the counter culture, Watergate, malaise, misery index, unemployment, double-digit inflation, 21-percent interest rates, energy crisis, oil shocks, the Soviets in Afghanistan, hostages in Iran, and on and on. It was a prolonged national nightmare.

Really, Kennedy’s message of hope, so forceful on January 20, 1961, dissipated like dust in the wind.

But then came Reagan, precisely 20 years later, January 20, 1981.

The moment Reagan swore the oath, he committed himself to “national renewal.” Unbeknownst to the press, those two words flowed directly from his personal pen. The theme pervaded the ceremony. On the reverse side of the tickets for the inaugural event was this promise: “America—A Great New Beginning, 1981.”