Peter Robinson, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of Uncommon Knowledge on PBS, is author, most recently, of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. He’s also a frequent contributor to NRO’s weblog, The Corner. He recently chatted—virtually—with his Corner colleague Kathryn Lopez about Ronald Reagan.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did Ronald Reagan really change your life? I mean, he was a politician.
Peter Robinson: Did Ronald Reagan change my life? You bet he did. I learned more from him than from anyone other than my own parents.
When I went to work as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, I was a 25-year-old kid from a smallish town in upstate New York–Vestal, just outside Binghamton, which is a couple of hundred miles from Manhattan–who had never before lived in a big city or held a full-time job (or, for that matter, written a speech). Aware that I had some growing up to do, I found myself looking around for a model, a wise, successful adult from whom I could learn. My college friends, who had joined corporations, banks, and law firms, had already found their models. They were studying the savviest managers in their corporations, the richest directors in their banks, and the suavest partners in their law firms. Whom could I study? It made no sense to model myself on the other speechwriters. Most of them were only in their thirties. For awhile I considered myself unlucky. Then I realized I might as well have won the twentysomething lottery. My model could be Ronald Reagan.
I gradually realized, for instance, that although the president made a show of taking a relaxed approach to his job–”I know hard work never killed anyone,” he often quipped, “but I figure why take a chance?”–he actually worked steadily. I learned the extent to which the president relied on his wife, drawing on her for comfort and encouragement. I saw one incident after another in which Reagan demonstrated gentleness, courtesy, and good humor.
Hard work. A good marriage. A certain lightness of touch. The longer I studied Ronald Reagan, the more I learned.
Lopez: What’s the most important political lesson he taught you?
Robinson: Probably the best way to answer that question is by quoting my colleague in the Reagan speechwriting shop, Clark Judge.
Clark understood organizations as well as anyone on the speechwriting staff–he held a degree from Harvard Business School–so one evening I asked him about an aspect of the Reagan White House that puzzled me. How, I wanted to know, could Ronald Reagan permit his staff to be divided into two such sharply opposed camps as the pragmatists (James Baker, Dick Darman, David Gergen) and the true believers (Ed Meese, Judge Clark, and, for that matter, us speechwriters)?
Because, Clark maintained, the chief executive was bighearted and generous. When true believers complained about his compromises or pragmatists sought to undermine his stands, Reagan simply forgave them both and went on with his work.
“Think back to Hollywood,” Clark said. “Anybody who’s read any show business memoirs knows Reagan ran into plenty of alcoholics, drug addicts, and people with sexual tastes that the folks back home in Dixon, Illinois would have had trouble believing. But Reagan saw how capable Hollywood professionals were even so. He saw them write scripts and design costumes and act and direct, providing affordable entertainment for millions.”
As in the motion-picture industry, Clark argued, so in politics. “The movie business and politics are both messy and collaborative,” he said. “Big egos, fights over speeches–Reagan is willing to tolerate all of that as long as the job gets done. If you want to accomplish anything important, he knows, you have to forgive people an awful lot.”
Reagan overlooked the faults of his staff, constantly reached out to his enemies–Tip O’Neill came to love the guy–and insisted on practicing the politics of inclusion. In short, he forgave people an awful lot. And just look at all he accomplished.
Lopez: What’s your most treasured life lesson inspired by RWR?
Robinson: That one’s easy. The pony in the dung heap.
It was Reagan’s favorite joke. Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked.
“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”
To Reagan, the pony in the dung heap was more than a gag. It was an approach to life. Reagan’s father was a drunk. His first wife divorced him. And just as he was starting his second family, the motion-picture industry turned away from good-natured, sunny actors such as Reagan himself to dark, brooding actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, leaving Reagan out of work for months at a time (family finances grew so tight at one point that Mrs. Reagan had to return to acting, accepting a part in a third-rate science fiction flick called Donovan’s Brain). Yet in each of these misfortunes, Reagan seems to have insisted upon finding good.
“A lot of people have a mistaken conception of free will,” Rev. Lorenzo Albacete, a priest I got to know during the Reagan years, once told me. “They think exercising free will means choosing their own reality. Try hard enough, and you can make yourself rich or famous or beautiful–that kind of thing. Well, man, I’m sorry. But it just ain’t so. Nobody gets to choose his parents. Nobody gets to choose whether he’s good looking or ugly or whether he’s intelligent or stupid. We all have to take reality as it comes to us–presidents, popes, all of us.
“The question is what you choose to do with reality. Reagan never permitted his misfortunes to interfere with his development as a human person. Instead he used them. All his life Reagan exercised his free will by choosing to seek the good in reality as it came to him.
“The pony in the dung heap?” Father Albacete said. “That’s it. That’s the entire anthropology of human existence. You become a complete person by digging for the pony in the midst of all the crap life throws at you.”
Lopez: Ronald Reagan taught you about marriage, too?
Robinson: I had a brother but no sisters, attended Dartmouth at a time when men still outnumbered women four to one, and went to a college at Oxford that was still entirely male. By the time I reached the White House I’d concluded that women, although interesting, were essentially irrelevant. (I was always close to my mother, but it never occurred to me that there could be anyone like her.) Then I began to realize just how much Nancy Reagan meant to her husband. As Josh Gilder, another of my colleagues on the speechwriting staff, once put it, “Ronald and Nancy Reagan are a unit. They’re tight.”
After observing the Reagans for a couple of years, I began to wish I could find someone who would mean as much to me as Mrs. Reagan meant to the president. I was still thinking of me, you’ll notice, but still. And by the time I’d begun to date a very beautiful young woman who worked in the White House Office of Scheduling and Appointments, I’d grown up enough to give her something to work with.
This year we celebrated our twelfth anniversary.
Lopez: And how did Ronald Reagan change your understanding of God?
Robinson: I was raised in a home in which religious belief was taken for granted, and I’d never felt any inclination to rebel against it–it always seemed obvious to me that Somebody was in charge. Then at Dartmouth I discovered that religious belief was naïve, uninformed, unsophisticated, uncool. Since I wanted to be cool, not uncool, I tried to shed my faith. I couldn’t. After exactly two miserable weeks as an atheist–the more I tried not to think of Him the more I did–I said the hell with it and went back to church. But if I couldn’t shed my faith, I could keep my mouth shut about it. I became an embarrassed believer.
Ronald Reagan got me over it. Reagan never wore his religion on his sleeve, yet he never gave the slightest indication that he ever felt embarrassed about it, either. His love of God proved as central to the way he looked at the world–as central to his very being–as did his love of country. Whenever I’d hear someone speak as if only rubes believed in God, I’d remind myself that Reagan had succeeded in radio, motion pictures, television, and politics–and that it looked as though he was winning the Cold War. He was a believer, and he was, well, cool.
Lopez: What would a The Reagans look like if you wrote the script?
Robinson: Instead of writing the script myself, I’d have found whoever wrote the portrait of Churchill that appeared on PBS not long ago, then hired him. The Churchill script made it clear that although Churchill had his faults–notably, like Reagan, a remoteness from his children–he was a man of remarkable talent and high ideals, doing his best to change the course of history. In other words, the Churchill script took the prime minister seriously. The Reagans should have been tossed out for a script that took the president just as seriously. The fall of the Soviet Union, the revitalization of the American economy and spirit, and all at the hands of a man of utter conviction–this is the stuff of high drama, not farce.
Lopez: If there’s one over-arching lesson you want your kids to learn from your Reagan years, what would it be?
Robinson: “When history is taught at all nowadays,” George F. Will wrote not long ago, “often it is taught as the unfolding of inevitabilities–of vast, impersonal forces. The role of contingency in history is disparaged, so students are inoculated against…the notion…that history can be turned in its course by…individuals.” Working for Ronald Reagan amounted to a graduate course in just the opposite, the ability of a single man to change the world. As Margaret Thatcher often says, “Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”
It’s unlikely that any of my kids will ever find himself called on to turn the course of history, of course. But I want them to see themselves as Ronald Reagan would have seen them–as beings that possess free will, reason, and immortal souls. I want my kids to understand that they matter.