Martin Anderson: Reagan Adviser and Man for Many Seasons

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Martin Anderson, an economist and adviser to three presidents who helped explain economic policy to Ronald Reagan and Reagan to the world, died last week at his home in Portola Valley, Calif., after an influential career. He was 78.

As a special assistant to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1971, Anderson is credited with drawing up the proposal that led to the end of military conscription in the United States. He also brought into government economist Alan Greenspan, who, like Anderson, was an adherent of iconoclastic free-market philosopher Ayn Rand.

Anderson left the Nixon administration to become a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a prominent conservative think tank at Stanford University. He took periodic leaves to help Reagan in his 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns and served as White House director of policy development in the first year of the Reagan presidency. Anderson wrote about Reagan’s first term in a 1988 book, “Revolution: The Reagan Legacy.”

Together with his wife and fellow economist Annelise Graebner Anderson and Kiron K. Skinner, Martin Anderson made an important historical contribution in editing collections of Reagan’s writings and voluminous correspondence with ordinary Americans: “Reagan, In His Own Hand” (2001) and “Reagan: A Life in Letters” (2003). These books demonstrated Reagan’s pithy insights and sense of country better than any political argument ever did.

The Andersons in 2009 wrote “Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster,” which focused on Reagan’s efforts to develop a missile shield to protect the nation from nuclear attack and ultimately to abolish nuclear weapons.

Martin Anderson was present at the incident that led to Reagan’s epiphany on missile defense. The two men toured the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado on July 31, 1979. Reagan was shown how radar could track an incoming missile but not stop it. “We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us,” Reagan said on their flight home to Los Angeles, Anderson recounted in “Revolution.”

Although the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that Reagan proposed as president was derided by many scientists as unworkable, it helped bring the Soviets to the bargaining table, where Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 that became the template for future arms agreements between the United States and Russia.

Anderson continued to the end of his days to advocate U.S. missile defense, now focused on intercepting nuclear warheads launched by terrorists or a rogue nation.

During the Reagan presidency, Anderson served as an effective go-between for Reagan and Paul Volcker, the blunt-spoken chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Volcker, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, was distrusted by many Republicans and had been bureaucratically denied a White House pass. He wrote Anderson in complaint. Anderson took the letter to Reagan, who saw to it that Volcker got his pass.

More important, Reagan and Volcker became allies in the Fed chairman’s efforts to curb runaway inflation. The policy worked, leading to a record 90 consecutive months of economic growth after a brief but deep recession.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, which I covered for The Washington Post, Anderson played a constructive role. Reagan had loads of economic advice in this campaign, but it went off in different directions. Greenspan and Anderson helped Reagan formulate a coherent policy from conflicting advice given by traditional and supply-side economists. Reagan shortened it into a punchy narration: “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

I had many dealings with Anderson during the campaign, when he was in the White House and when I was writing my biographies of Reagan, and much respected him for his insights and honesty. When he had complaints about something I had written, he typically registered them with courtly good humor. More than once, he helped me understand an economic issue with which I was struggling. He was alert for verbal missteps by Reagan, of which there were several in both the 1976 and 1980 campaigns. In 1980 Anderson came up with an inventive explanation to a New York Times reporter who had pointed out various Reagan errors. The problem, Anderson explained blithely, was that Reagan used hundreds of examples in his speeches. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, things checked out, but sometimes the source was wrong,” Anderson said.

Overall, Anderson was more adept at policy advice than political in-fighting. After internal disputes in 1982, he left the Reagan administration, where he had been a success as policy development director, and returned to Hoover, where in 1998 he was named the Keith and Jan Hurlbut senior fellow. In my view the White House never did find an adequate replacement for Anderson as domestic policy chief.

Anderson continued an active life after leaving the administration. One of his projects was a book, “Imposters in the Temple,” drawing from his early experience as a 28-year-old tenured professor of finance at Columbia University to explore what he saw as left-leaning instruction in higher education.

He was a member of the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control from 1987 to 1992, beginning under Reagan and continuing into the presidency of George H.W. Bush. He was also for five years a trustee of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

Citing his service, Nancy Reagan issued a statement lauding him and his wife, which concluded: “Loyal men like Martin Anderson come along very rarely in one’s life, and I will miss him terribly.”

For all the good he did as a presidential adviser, it was as writer and editor that Anderson most made his mark.

The Hoover Institution Press will next month publish Anderson’s final book, co-authored with Annelise Anderson, “Ronald Reagan: Decisions of Greatness.” I’ll be at the front of the line to read it.

Funeral services are pending at Alta Mesa Funeral Home in Palo Alto.

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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