The Political Lessons of Reagan

The Political Lessons of Reagan

By David Paul Kuhn - February 6, 2011

Ronald Reagan studied audiences. He sometimes wore one contact lens to read his speech and used the other eye to see which lines won the crowd. "He said to me one day, Ed, how long do you think I can hold an audience," recalled Ed Rollins, who served most notably as Reagan's 1984 campaign manager. "It's like running a 220-yard sprint," Reagan told Rollins. "You get off fast, you sort of cruise in the middle and you kick it in, in the end." And Reagan knew he had a crowd only so long. "Anywhere from 23 to 27 minutes, I'd see them start to wander," Reagan said of audiences. This was, as Rollins pointed out to me, the length of the typical television show.

This is the Reagan that all sides commend. The talent for talk. The knockdown rejoinders: "There you go again." The coolness in personal crisis: "Honey, I forgot to duck." The moral clarity: "Focus of evil in the modern world." And there was his skillful stagecraft. Reagan was the first president to hold his inaugural on the west side of the Capitol. He had played the all-American man for so long, that the actor became the role and the role, to this day, is now deeply defined by this singular actor.

But acting only partly explains this president. The B-movie leading man was washed up by the late 1950s. More than three decades later, Reagan excelled at the starring role of American life. Ever since, every president, and wannabe, has sought to emulate that which made Reagan, Reagan.

Today marks the centennial anniversary of Reagan's birth. His personal story, gifts and successes, have been exhaustively chronicled. There has been, however, far less attention paid to the political lessons of Reagan. This was truer in Reagan's day. He was, to borrow from a more recent president, a politician consistently "misunderestimated."

The actor haunts Reagan's memory in caricature, as it did in political life. "So, what's this empty nonsense about Ronald Reagan being just an actor," John Wayne once said in his defense. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon once wrote that, "When it comes to ideas, Reagan is the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics, he can't get any respect."

Reagan came to be called "the great communicator," in praise and in slight. But Washington saw his talent, and Hollywood only deserved some credit. Reagan began his career as a radio announcer earning $100 a month. It was there that he learned the art of words. One Cubs game, as the story famously goes, the telegraph wire failed. Reagan did not miss a beat, creating the play-by-play with his imagination.

But to his political opposition, the "great communicator" nickname also denied what else was great in him. Liberals could accept defeat by rhetoric and role-player. It meant the performer won on message, not ideas. Richard Nixon also believed he was defeated by the same sort, that lightweight-flyboy sort. But men like Nixon and Jimmy Carter never grasped that the modern presidency had changed. It was no longer for leading men, but for stars.

Nixon first realized the road to the White House was through television. But Nixon lacked the innate ability to master it, as John Kennedy and Reagan did. And yet Reagan and Kennedy succeeded on television, in part, because they succeeded before crowds.

Reagan's political success is owed less to acting than to his years hosting a weekly television dramatic series, General Electric Theater, and speaking at GE factories and conventions. His job title was aptly "communicator." "If you ask me, what is it that gave Reagan such great appeal when he became a candidate, it wasn't his acting ability. It was speeches he was giving to General Electric," Reagan strategist Richard Wirthlin once told me.

Yet since the Greek Sophists, we have known that words fail when unmoored from conviction. Political opponents and allies knew where Reagan stood. Reagan was incurious. He was smart, witty, but hardly a man of complex thought. Yet it's trite, and no less true, to note that Reagan was also a man of clear convictions. President Obama has sought to emulate Reagan's optimistic tones, like so many politicians, but he has failed to convey his own maxims. Reagan viscerally understood that his words touched people because they were anchored to something deeper than words.

It took decades for Reagan to work out his convictions. And this too is instructive. Sometimes carpe diem begs a politician to run for the White House before middle age--true for Kennedy and Obama--but there is also something to be said for getting there slowly. Reagan knew himself before he ever asked America to know him well enough to lead them.

And yet Americans also get lost in the airbrushed image of Reagan. Some of Reagan's political lessons are seen in failure. Iran-Contra reminds presidents that some degree of micro-management is requisite. Reagan's inattention to the AIDS crisis reminds us that clear values can also lead politicians to take stands they might later rue.

Conservatives sometimes get especially lost in the two-dimensional Reagan. They recall the stalwart conservative who challenged big government. But they forget the pragmatist who, after an historic tax cut, raised taxes in his second year. They remember Reagan's willingness to use words of good and evil, as he did with the Soviet Union. But Reagan also worked with that "evil empire" and found compromise. It led to the first treaty reducing the two powers' nuclear arsenals.

And to Rollins, the right too often forgets Reagan's belief in coalition building. "Reagan was always about addition. Never narrow the base," Rollins said. "It was the opposite of the Bush-Rove equation. Reagan always wanted to broaden the party."

But the right has absorbed other lessons of Reagan. American conservatism is peculiarly optimistic, and a great measure of that optimism is owed to Reagan. The oldest American president was among the most sanguine. The American right is also most un-Burkean. Edmund Burke was skeptical of the masses. Reagan's conservatism uplifted the everyman, at least in rhetorical terms. And when people heard Reagan, they sensed he believed in his words, and that explained why so many believed in him, even if they disagreed with him.

"Richard Nixon could tell you every precinct captain in America. Reagan never cared about that," Rollins said. "I briefed him, and he was always asking where are we going, who are we talking to?" And Americans sensed it. "At the end of the day," Rollins added, "if the country likes you, they will give you the benefit of the doubt."

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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