Martin Anderson, who died last weekend at the age of 78, served four presidents. But his greatest influence was on two Republican presidents with different ideological perspectives: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. While a Columbia University professor, Anderson was hired by Nixon as his research director when the future president was preparing his 1968 run. With his analytical skills, Anderson eventually persuaded Nixon to dump the military draft in 1973 in favor of the all-volunteer army we have today. Ronald Reagan was so impressed with Anderson that he made him his first domestic-policy adviser, and much of Reagan’s governing agenda had roots in Anderson’s groundwork.
Although he served full time in government for only a year before joining Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board for the rest of his presidency, Anderson played an outsize role. Teddy White, the author of the Making of the President series, wrote that Anderson became “Reagan’s Seeing Eye Dog . . . a one-man warehouse of facts . . . guiding [Reagan] to that growing minority revolting against the dominant liberal ideas that reigned on American campuses.” Many of the academics who served in the Reagan administration were indeed recruited by Anderson.
Take the military draft. The system by which men were selected for Vietnam service was riddled with unfairness. Many college students and others who had wealth or political pull got exemptions that kept them safely out of uniform. Disrespect for the draft bred contempt for the rule of law, weakened morale in the services, and defied American traditions. In 1968, after he had read Anderson’s memos, Richard Nixon campaigned against the draft, saying it “cannot be squared with our whole concept of liberty, justice, and equality under the law.”
As Reagan geared up to run for president in 1980, Anderson was instrumental in building the intellectual case for Reagan’s proposal to cut marginal tax rates by 30 percent. Anderson correctly predicted that the tax program, combined with restraint in domestic spending and regulatory reform, would lead to expansion that would put Jimmy Carter’s stagnant and inflationary economy (the infamous “stagflation”) in the country’s rear-view mirror. The Reagan expansion outlasted Reagan and became, with a few short pauses, the most sustained period of economic growth in American history until it was ended by the 2008 financial crisis.
The books that Anderson and his collaborators produced have had a profound impact on the conventional wisdom about Reagan’s presidency. Lou Cannon, the most respected of all Reagan biographers, has written that the Anderson effort “drives a stake into the heart of the notion that the president was any kind of a dunce.”
While never self-effacing, Marty Anderson was never one to put personal glory above making sure that people understood the nuts-and-bolts of public policy. “We’ve inherited a great country, and it’s the responsibility of those who love it to bequeath it to future generations,” he once told me. Marty Anderson not only helped shape public policy for the better, but he has made us understand so much more about how it is built and implemented.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.