This is a year of important anniversaries for Ronald Reagan and his legacy. It is the tenth anniversary of his passing; it has been 25 years since he left the White House and 50 years since his groundbreaking speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. It is also 30 years since his monumental reelection of 1984, ratifying the Reagan Revolution.
The election of 1980 would have been meaningless, a detour in history, without 1984 legitimizing it. The Reagan Library, Eureka College, and the Reagan Ranch have taken various steps to commemorate these important anniversaries. And the effort to name a mountain in Nevada after Reagan is moving ahead, despite some Democrats’ attempts to derail it.
For those who say Reagan was divisive, consider that in 1980 and 1984, he received a total of 1,014 electoral votes while Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale received a grand total of 62. Actually, Reagan in his political career received 1,015 electoral votes, because in 1976, Mike Padden, a pro-life activist in Washington State, was an elector, and though Gerald Ford carried the Evergreen State that year, Padden could not bring himself to vote for Ford. Instead he cast his Electoral College ballot for Reagan, thus becoming what history calls a “faithless elector.” Of the tens of thousands of electoral votes cast for presidential candidates, there have been just a handful of faithless electors, and Padden, in joining their ranks, became a small footnote in American presidential lore.
The Gipper is known for many accomplishments and for his Renaissance Man life. He learned from an early age — starting when he led a student revolt at Eureka College and gave his first public speech, which he later described as a “heady” experience — that words and how they were delivered made all the difference in the world.
Fifty years ago this October, Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political stage with his monumental speech lauding the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Many now know the significance of “The Speech,” but what few think about is how political leaders are often defined by their speeches, for good or ill. Richard Nixon, to his great misfortune, is defined by his Checkers speech and “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” a.k.a. the “last press conference” tirade. Obviously, also his speech announcing his resignation. Jimmy Carter will be forever defined by the “malaise” speech in the summer of 1979, even though, ironically, he never actually used that word.
President Obama? His best speech was in the distant past, when he was a lowly state senator from Illinois and he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention, appearing to be a thoughtful up-and-comer. He hasn’t given a good speech since; most of them are insipid, thick with straw men, and leaving the listener with a feeling of being hungry and at the same time insulted.
Bill Clinton would like to remember a few and forget many of his speeches, such as the one at the Atlanta Democratic convention in 1988, when the verbose young man was booed by his own party for bloviating so long. His listeners actually cheered when they heard him say, “and in conclusion . . .” His best speeches may have been in 1992 in accepting his party’s nomination, and only a few years later when he proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.” But Clinton will be most remembered in history for statements such as “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and “I did not have sexual relations with that young woman.” Clinton, who is obsessed about his place in history, will, in all likelihood, have obituaries that lead by noting he is only the second president in history to be impeached.
More brightly, Lincoln will forever be known for his “house divided” stemwinder, the Cooper Union speech, his second inaugural address, and of course the Gettysburg Address. Many find it more than ironic that in his life, he was derided for being an intellectual lightweight, for not having attended the right schools, for supposedly governing by anecdote, and for not understanding the ways of Washington. Sound familiar?
FDR is best known for his (often misquoted) “. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural remarks of 1933, his 1936 acceptance speech (“This generation . . . has a rendezvous with destiny”), and his 1941 “day of infamy” speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan. JFK was a marvelous public speaker and was best known for his 1961 inaugural “ask not” speech. His televised addresses on civil rights and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his speech at Rice University, rallying the nation to support landing a man on the moon, were also important and memorable.
Reagan had many good speeches. So much so that he devoted a book, Speaking My Mind, to his favorite commentaries and discourses, edited by one of his speechwriters, Landon Parvin, whom Reagan acknowledged in his introduction to the book. Reagan also came up with many good lines, including the now familiar “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream . . .” And, “The trouble with our liberal friends isn’t that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” He could fire up a crowd as well as any tub-thumper in politics, as he did in speaking of the Panama Canal during the 1976 campaign. “We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we are going to keep it!”
Everyone has a favorite Reagan speech. Some would choose the 1964 tongue-lashing of the Left and defense of Goldwater; others, his acceptance speech in 1980; others, his election-eve remarks in 1980; while others choose the “Tear down this wall!” barnburner, the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” tearjerker, the “dustbin of history” indictment, the thundering “Evil Empire” avowal — the list goes on and on. Maybe his greatest challenge in public speaking was in his extemporaneous remarks at the end of the 1976 convention, just after he lost the nomination to Gerald Ford by 57 votes out of 2,259. These nationally televised remarks were visionary, uplifting, and inspirational. Had he been allowed to address the convention two nights earlier, his words might well have swung the nomination to him, as the Ford forces feared.
Reagan gave so many good speeches, it is hard to pick a single favorite, although one is the 1992 Houston-convention speech — “whatever else history may say of me . . .” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Also, his series of “iron triangle” speeches in the final weeks of his second term, indicting the media, the special interests, and Congress, were meaty and powerful. He went out with a bang, not a whimper.
That is not to say he didn’t have some clunkers. His speech in August of 1982 asking the American people to support TEFRA — a large tax increase — was a dead letter. In the early days of the 1976 campaign, he turned in some bad performances before he found his footing. But the fact remains that it was actually news when, occasionally, he did not meet expectations.
Reagan attracted so many good writers and good people because he himself was a good writer and good person. Administrations often work that way. Nixon attracted staff who shared his dark view of the world, FDR attracted self-confident men, JFK attracted intellectually curious men, and so forth. LBJ attracted some really bad characters because — well, you get the picture.
From the time Reagan first became a national political figure and right through his eight years in the White House, too-quick-to-judge reporters and political observers complained that he wasn’t saying anything new, and at one level they were right. But the more sophisticated discerned that in fact Reagan’s content was always fresh; it’s just that his themes were consistent.
Reagan was himself a first-rate researcher and essayist and had thought at one point in his life about pursuing a career as a professional writer. But again the Reagan doubters were not convinced of his intellectual heft until Marty and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner edited the books Reagan: A Life in Letters and Reagan: In His Own Hand, sizable tomes that came out at just the right time, just as the Reagan legacy was in danger of becoming misshapen and unrecognizable, a pawn of the establishment types who wanted to downgrade his place in history, or rewrite it into something more acceptable to them. Just ask Calvin Coolidge about what liberal historians did to his legacy. Or Dwight David Eisenhower.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The very forces of the establishment Republicans who made war against Reagan before he was REAGAN are at it again, saying the Gipper could not have survived in the modern Republican party or would have been rejected by the tea party or could not have been elected today. Actually, the Constitution would forbid him from completing a third term, and we all know in what reverence he held that sacred document. Those same forces who thought men like Bill and Jim Buckley were unsophisticated and out of touch are now making war against the intellectual conservative forces of the tea party. It’s as if an Iron Curtain has fallen across the GOP, with the statists on one side and the forces for individuality on the other.
Jeb Bush has said Reagan would be too liberal for the modern GOP. Jon Huntsman has made the same claim. As scions of wealthy, establishment families, their observations need to be taken with a little more than a grain of salt. Actually, the fight inside the GOP today, pitting the insider elites against the outsider reformers, is very much like the fight in which Reagan found himself in the mid-1970s. Reagan, the intellectual populist, was a tea-party leader long before there was a tea-party movement — but there was a conservative movement, and he was very much the leader of that vibrant political force.
Those who write that Reagan would not now fit in the party he largely created make the mistake so many do in discussing Reagan: They confuse tactics with principles.
They charge that it is forgotten that Reagan compromised; but in fact, conservatives celebrate him for compromising on tactics, but never on goals or principles. Changing tactics can be smart politics. Changing principles is not.
By the time of the Goldwater speech, he was already a champion of the individual over the state, the essence of American conservatism. In his adult life, he never awakened in the morning saying to himself, “Government is popular now, so I will switch my principles and embrace big government.” In fact, his mature American conservatism, including the opposition to centralized authority, came at a time when the American people still generally believed in government. His embrace of the pro-life cause came at a time when the science wasn’t what it is today and the pro-abortion position was the more popular position for politicians, including within the GOP. Indeed, it was allies of Reagan’s who added the pro-life plank to the GOP platform in 1976, where it remains to this day.
His rejection of containment and détente and advocacy of actually winning the Cold War shocked the establishment, but by the end of the 1980 campaign, the American people had come to share his viewpoint and in point of fact supported nuclear superiority over the Russians.
In 1980, the American people were very skeptical of the idea of tax cuts until Reagan successfully explained that power should reside with the citizens, and they could better determine their own destiny if basic tools were available, including their own money. Reagan himself had been a latecomer to supply-side economics, but when he saw that it would reduce the power of the state and increase the power of the individual, he was all in.
Indeed, on all these issues and others, the American public swung to the Reagan position. In 1976, polling showed that Americans generally supported the Panama Canal Treaties, but by the time Reagan was done thrashing Ford and Carter over the plan, a sizable majority of citizens opposed the treaties.
Aid to the Nicaraguan Contras was never a popular cause, but that didn’t stop Reagan from fighting for them, speaking out for them, and, in the end, being proven right while his enemies were proven wrong.
In other words, Thomas Carlyle was right: Great men summon forth great ideas and great movements because they have great courage and great convictions.
Reagan was certainly adaptable, as was Churchill, as were other significant political leaders. In the early 1930s, commercial radio was a new medium, but he mastered it. In the late 1930s, talking pictures were a relatively new medium, and he mastered those. In the early 1950s, commercial television was a new venture, and he mastered that as well. If Reagan were alive today, he’d probably be using Facebook and Twitter (perfect for his quips!) and all the other new forms of communication to advance his ideas. Technology always fascinated him as a method of spreading ideas.
To say Reagan would not fit in today’s GOP or modern politics is to underestimate him once again. It is an indolent argument. I used to get angry in the 1980s when people would say “Let Reagan be Reagan” or blame Jim Baker for somehow moderating Reagan. Reagan was too steely to ever be manipulated, and, besides, Jim Baker never tried to manipulate Reagan. Instead, he helped him be a better president and leader.
The essence of leadership, to answer the question of Henry Adams, is to make the times one lives in. Reagan made the times he lived in, as did Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower.
If Reagan were with us today and he wanted to participate in modern politics, I suspect he would have done so with the same grace and élan he did beginning 50 years ago. In the meantime, the lesson for the GOP is to learn new things and learn to be adaptable, but never compromise on basic principles.
Some have suggested that Reagan could not survive in today’s GOP because he was “a man of his times.” In fact, given his principles, his vision, and his moral convictions, Reagan was a man for all times, for all seasons.
— Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer, having written four books on the Gipper including the highly acclaimed Rendezvous with Destiny and Reagan’s Revolution. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller December 1941. He has lectured at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College. He is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.