A 13-minute speech given last Thursday by the incoming US House Speaker Paul Ryan probably won’t be etched in marble like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Yet with Washington “broken” and the Wisconsin Republican trying to heal a party split that led to his election, the speech deserves more ink and viral videos than it received. A key test of its worth: Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress praised it highly.
We reprint excerpts here because the insights may be useful for any group dispirited by division. He does not call for political centrism or constant bipartisanship. Rather Mr. Ryan offers a reminder of the humility needed for representative democracy, the concern necessary to hear minority views, and a purpose for prayer. Lincoln might have approved.
... [S]tanding here, I cannot help but think of something Harry Truman once said. The day after Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman became president, he told a group of reporters: “If you ever pray, pray for me now. . . . When they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
We all should feel that way. A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other – Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because – when you’re up here, you see it so clearly– wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.
I never thought I’d be the speaker. But early in my life, I wanted to serve in the House. I thought the place was exhilarating – because here, you could make a difference. If you had a good idea and worked hard, you could make it happen. You could improve people’s lives. To me, the House represented the best of America: the boundless opportunity to do good.
But let’s be frank: The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.
We need to let every member contribute – not once they have earned their stripes, but right now.... Let people participate. And they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority.
... [I]f there were ever a time for us to step up, this would be that time. America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore. .... They are not asking for any favors. They just want a fair chance. And they are losing faith that they will ever get it. Then they look at Washington, and all they see is chaos.
What a relief to them it would be if we finally got our act together – what a weight off their shoulders. How reassuring it would be if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their health care, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty, and paid down the debt. At this point, nothing could be more inspiring than a job well done. Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.
The cynics will scoff and say it’s not possible. But you better believe we are going to try. We will not duck the tough issues. We will take them head on. We are going to do all we can so working people get their strength back and people not working get their lives back. No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all – that is our motto.
I often talk about the need for a vision. I’m not sure I ever said what I meant. We solve problems here – yes. We create a lot of them too. But at bottom, we vindicate a way of life. We show by our work that free people can govern themselves. They can solve their own problems. They can make their own decisions. They can deliberate, collaborate, and get the job done. We show self-government is not only more efficient and more effective; it is more fulfilling. In fact, we show it is that struggle, that hard work, the very achievement itself that makes us free.
That is what we do here. And we will not always agree – not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let’s hear them. I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.
And there is every reason to have hope. When the first speaker took the gavel, he looked out at a room of 30 people, representing a nation of 3 million. Today, as I look out at you, we represent a nation of 300 million. So when I hear people say America does not have it – we are done, we are spent – I do not believe it. I believe, with every fiber of my being, we can renew the America Idea. Now, our task is to make us all believe.