Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia

January 26, 1984

Audience. [Chanting] Four more in '84! Four more in '84!

The President. Thank you. I'll take that under consideration until Sunday night. [Laughter] Well, I thank you Mack and Bill Harris, Bob Bell, and Members of the Congress, Newt Gingrich, and ladies and gentlemen.

I have to tell you a little something here that's just reminded me of a story—two things have reminded me. First of all, I understand that many of you heard me last night, and then I happened to hear that a great many of you heard me on television just a little while ago. And the other thing is that when two gentlemen came in here, that left me backstage with their wives. [Laughter] And that also helped remind me of the story— [laughter] —that the fact that you heard me twice also—it happens to be a story of an older preacher who was talking to a young preacher who hadn't had as much experience.

And he said to him, "You know, sometimes on Sunday morning, they begin to nod off." And he says, "I've found a way to wake them up." He says, "Right in my sermon when I see them beginning to doze, I say, 'Last night I held in my arms a woman who is the wife of another man.'" And he says, "That wakes them up." [Laughter] And he says, "Then, when they look at me startled, I say: It was my dear mother." [Laughter]

Well, the young preacher took that to heart. And a few weeks later, sure enough, there some of them were, dozing off. So, he remembered what had been told him, and he said. "Last night I held in my arms a woman who is the wife of another man." And they all looked at him, and everyone was awake. And he says, "I can't remember who it was." [Laughter]

But it's wonderful to be here with all of you in Georgia. It wasn't that long ago, yes, when the South was a stronghold for the Democratic Party. But from the spirit I sense here, those days are long gone. Today it's the Republican Party that reflects the progress and the vibrance of the new South.

And I think—having been a Democrat myself, as I'm sure many of you were also and made the change, and you know what it is like to make that change—but I think that many of us look back—I know I do-and say, did I really change? Or was it that the party of my father and the party that I had belonged to, it changed? It no longer stood for the things that it had stood for, for so many years.

I, once as a new Republican, tried to talk the Republican Party into using the 1932 Democratic platform. [Laughter] It called for a 25-percent reduction in government spending, a return to the States and local communities autonomy that had been confiscated by the Federal Government, a reduction and elimination of useless boards and bureaus and departments in government. And I thought, that's still a brand new platform. At least they've never used it. [Laughter]

Hundreds of Republicans have been elected through the South. Your own Senator, Mack Mattingly, Congressman Newt Gingrich, Bill Young, Macon's mayor, George Israel, and others who couldn't be with us—they represent the kind of courageous leadership of which southerners and all Republicans are rightfully proud. And I'm especially grateful, because I relied heavily on them for the last 3 years. And all I ask is, "Send me more."

You here today are proof of a new solid South about to emerge on the American political scene. And only this time, it'll be a Republican South. I predict that in this coming election, we're not only going to hold our own; we're going to make gains throughout the region.

The new South will not, for political expediency, be tying itself to political bosses and big spenders in other parts of the country. Those days are over. The new South is concerned about economic growth and expanding opportunity for everyone. The new South is concerned about a strong America and about maintaining the values and the strength of character that made this country the richest and the greatest in history. And now is the time to reach out to our Democratic friends as never before and to tell them how good the water is over on this side. [Laughter]

Voting Republican isn't half bad. As I told you, I know how hard it is to make that first move, but it wasn't me or it wasn't you who have made the same change that moved. As I say, the party moved.

Now, once Democratic candidates encouraged people to work for the country. I remember, as a matter of fact, a young President at his inaugural who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." And within a matter of weeks, they had introduced 29 new spending programs of what the country could do for the people. [ Laughter]

Today, we see candidates who are trying to buy support by telling people what the country will do for them and making promises to interest groups. Just a while ago, there was a debate up in New Hampshire. [Laughter] And there were so many candidates on the platform, there weren't enough promises to go around. [Laughter]

But I just don't believe the people can be bought with promises anymore that have to be paid for out of the Treasury. They know who eventually ends up paying for all of those promises. I feel sorry for some of those Democratic Congressmen, though, at the same time. Can you imagine what it must be like, worn out after a day at the office? They go home. They try to go to sleep. And the first thing you know, they're having nightmares that the money they're spending is their own. [Laughter]

Calvin Coolidge once said that "Patriotism is easy to understand in America. It means looking out for yourself by looking out for the country." Well, the Republican message to voters this year is just that: When we vote, we should do it for America. When we choose on election day, we should think of the future of our children. It'll require hard work on our part. We have to get our message out, and that isn't so easy in America. There just does seem to be more attention paid to things other than what we have to say.

For example, right now that whole thing about that all of our problems could be solved if we would just take that defense budget and whittle it down to size. We're so extravagant with defense spending. Well, would you like to know that in 1962 the defense budget under a Democratic administration was 48 percent? Would you like to know also that our budget—that was 48 percent of the whole budget for defense. Our budget last year was 27.6 percent—27.6 percent. And this year, the budget we're asking for will be 28 percent of the total budget. So, no, it isn't that. But, again, the distortions keep on coming out.

The other day, I just heard one of them on television, and he referred to the recent recession as my recession. [Laughter] Well, now, as I recall with those double-digit interest rates and inflation rates and everything, and unemployment up there pretty high and climbing, and it'd been climbing since 1979, we proposed our economic recovery program. But when we fell off into the big dip called the recession—which was really a continuation of the recession that had started in 1979—but when we fell off into that big dip of unemployment, and the housing industry folded because of the high interest rates, and the automobile companies and the steel companies all shut down, and it spread—nothing of our economic recovery program had been put in place yet. It wasn't there. We were still operating on the last budget of theirs, which we had to inherit when we came into office.

Audience member. Georgia apologizes! [Laughter]

The President. Well, but seriously- [laughter] —these are economic matters that a great many people don't understand. For example, right now, the whole talk about the deficits—no one wants more than we do—for years we've been complaining about them. But we started deficit spending 50 years ago. And for 46 of those 50 years, the Democrats had a majority in both Houses of the Congress—to say nothing of how many times they also had the White House. And it is the Congress that spends money. There's nothing in the Constitution that gives the President any right to spend any money. Not a penny.

But they—if you'll remember back—they told us that deficit spending didn't matter because we owed it to ourselves. [Laughter] And they said it was necessary for prosperity that we have a little deficit spending too—and a little inflation also—and that we could keep on going with that. And now the pattern has been set to which the deficits are caused by what they call the uncontrollables, meaning programs that they created, adopted, and built in an automatic increase in spending every year so they don't have to go back and increase it themselves, it just automatically increases.

Well, these are the things—why we need more in the Congress of the people like are on this platform, more so that we can get the job done of getting government back down to where it should be and proving that nothing is uncontrollable if a Congress is willing to undo the mistake that it made.

There's one thing—I don't think any of us should be afraid in the coming election year of asking our friends and our Democratic friends: "Are you worse or better off than you were 4 years ago? Is America better off than it was 4 years ago?"

We'd permitted our military strength-going back to the defense budget—to erode. And as it declined, so did our prestige and our national security. How many of you have heard some friend who's back from going abroad in those days and comes back and the feeling that he got over there of the disdain that so many people felt for this country? But we reversed that trend in the last 3 years. And I think today every citizen of the United States is safer and the United States is more respected and more secure because of what we've done.

And right here, I've got to interrupt and tell a little story. I enjoy telling it. [Laughter] Those guys of ours, those young men and women in uniform, when you see one of them on the street anymore, remember what it was like back in the war, if you're old enough to remember then? Why don't you—don't just pass them by. Kind of smile and maybe stick out a hand and tell them you're glad they're doing what they're doing.

What I wanted to—the story I want to tell, I've been telling it all over the Capital, and I hope it hasn't gotten here yet. [Laughter] It comes from a young first lieutenant, a marine lieutenant who flies a Cobra. He was at Grenada, and now he's in Beirut. He moved on when the relief force moved over there. And he wrote back and said that while he was in Grenada, he noticed that every news story about Grenada contained one line that never varied, that Grenada produced more nutmeg than any other place on Earth. And he decided that was a code. [Laughter] And he was going to break the code. And so he wrote back to say he did.

In six steps he had broken the code. Number one, Grenada does produce more nutmeg than any other place on Earth. Number two, the Soviets and the Cubans are trying to take Grenada. Number three, you can't have Christmas—or you can't make eggnog—you can't make eggnog without nutmeg. Number four, you can't have Christmas without eggnog. Number five, the Soviets and the Cubans were trying to steal Christmas. [Laughter] And, he wrote, number six, we stopped them. [Laughter]

Listen, I've kept you standing there longer than I intended to, and I just want to again thank you for all the support that you've given and the way you've rallied. And all of the polls show that the things that we want so badly and that are being denied by the majority today in Congress, the polls show they're the things that the American people overwhelming want.

Eighty-three percent of the most recent poll of the people said, yes, they want the deficits reduced, but they don't want them reduced by raising taxes. They want them reduced by cutting spending—83 percent. Over 70 percent in all the polls that I've seen say they want the President to have the line-item veto. By the same numbers, they want the constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

So, we're going to try to talk, and we're going to try to negotiate in a bipartisan fashion, dealing with the deficit. But I can tell you now I am dead set against raising taxes to do it.

So, again, thank you all—

Audience member. Are you going to run? The President. What? [Laughter] Audience member. Are you going to run?

The President. Tune in Sunday night. Don't miss it.

Thank you all very much. God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 6 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Omni Hotel. Prior to his remarks, he met with southern Republican leaders at the hotel.

Following his appearance at the conference, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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