Politics & Policy

Reagan as Pundit

From the November 8, 2004, issue of National Review.

Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision: Selected Writings, edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson (Free Press, 538 pp., $35)

It has been said that history is too important to be left to historians, and proof of this remark is given by the fact that the most significant work done on Ronald Reagan has come not from historians, but from two economists and a political scientist, Martin and Annelise Anderson, and Kiron Skinner. The trio’s publication in 2001 of Reagan in His Own Hand, a collection of Reagan’s handwritten radio addresses and speeches, marked a watershed in the public’s knowledge and estimation of Reagan. It proved that Reagan was no mere creature of speechwriters and handlers, as his detractors had long alleged, but was in fact the prime mover of his public career.

Skinner and the Andersons followed up last year with a collection of Reagan’s personal letters (he may have written as many as 10,000), and now complete the cycle with a fresh batch of Reagan’s handwritten radio commentaries from the last half of the 1970s, which reflect Reagan working out his views on the full spectrum of domestic and foreign issues. Thanks to the Andersons and Skinner, the slur that Reagan was lazy, uninformed, and ignorant of the details of federal policy should have been consigned once and for all to the ash heap of history.

This prominent aspect of the Reagan story is surprisingly little known. When he left the California governorship in 1975, Reagan began a twice-weekly newspaper column and a five-day-a-week syndicated radio commentary that was carried on more than 300 stations, reaching an estimated 20 to 30 million listeners. It was a way of making a good living as well as keeping his views in front of the public, but it was also a way of making himself the rallying point for the conservative movement that was readying itself for a drive to power. In this respect, Reagan’s media career during his “wilderness years” in the late 1970s resembles Winston Churchill’s “wilderness years” in the 1930s, when he too used his writing to make himself the rallying point against his government’s weakness.

Most of Reagan’s newspaper columns were ghostwritten for him by Peter Hannaford, and it was always assumed that the radio commentaries were ghosted as well. But Reagan, an ex-radio broadcaster, took a keen interest in his radio portfolio and wrote the bulk of those commentaries himself. Over five years, Reagan broadcast 1,027 commentaries; the Andersons and Skinner discovered Reagan’s handwritten drafts of 682 of them. It is likely that Reagan wrote even more than this, but the handwritten drafts were lost or discarded.

The Reagan that emerges from this enormous corpus of writings is full of curiosity: He cast a wide net for information, and went far beyond generalities to discuss the inner workings of obscure government programs and regulations. Reagan displayed a talent for explaining complicated regulations, such as how the Clean Air Act’s “prevention of significant deterioration” policy works, in just three minutes, along with a critique and alternative ideas for achieving the same goals. (On another occasion, he took after the Consumer Product Safety Commission for its regulation of lawn mowers.) Often Reagan would devote three or four commentaries to the same subject over the course of consecutive broadcasts. Stitched together, these serial commentaries offer a complete teaching on issues such as inflation, tax policy, welfare reform, the environment, and foreign policy.

The remarkable range and depth of Reagan’s writings suggests that he was arguably the best-prepared person to enter the White House in modern times. This was not a person who needed to consult polls and policy wonks to decide what was important or what he should think. The commentaries presage several prominent themes of his presidency, especially the centrality of controlling inflation along with the arguments for cutting income-tax rates. One especially significant commentary was his attack in 1977 on the Federal Communications Commission’s “fairness doctrine,” which President Reagan’s FCC abolished in 1987, helping to open the way for conservative talk radio. And scattered throughout are a number of familiar arguments and quips that he used during his presidency. (My favorite is his quip about liberal economists “who have a Phi Beta Kappa key on one end of their watch chains and no watch on the other.” This appeared in one of his first commentaries in 1975, and he used it in one of his presidential speeches in 1981.) Reagan’s remarkable economic literacy shines forth in his domestic-policy commentaries.

Some readers may find the format of this collection slightly difficult, as the editors have reprinted Reagan’s words exactly as he wrote them (and in chronological order), with his changes and crossouts marked in italics or capital letters. The editors do not interpolate Reagan’s lacunae or correct his idiosyncratic shorthand spelling (“burocrat” for bureaucrat). This literalness is useful, however, in illuminating Reagan’s self-editing abilities and his talent for achieving economy of expression. The reader will also appreciate more fully that the Reagan style originated with him and not his speechwriters. The format of Reagan’s commentaries required him to write pithy, one-sentence leads, or “teasers,” after which he’d say, “I’ll be right [or sometimes “rite”] back” before breaking for a commercial. He wrote leads worthy of the best op-ed practitioners. An example: “The ability of Burocracy in the field of self preservation should be an inspiration to all those who teach survival courses. I’ll be right back.”

He was a skillful aphorist. My favorite is one from 1977 that holds up well today: “If words could be burned as fuel Congress would have the energy crisis solved and we’d be in the export business.” Another: “I’ve always suspected the Russian Athletes do as well as they do [at the Olympics] because they think there are real bullets in the starters gun.”

The commentaries were not all-politics-all-the-time. Reagan would often do a “human interest” commentary that sounded more like Paul Harvey than an aspiring president. Commentaries about sports figures, children struggling with debilitating diseases, and the rare uplifting Hollywood movie show the side of Reagan that innately connected the greatness of the nation to its character as well as its principles. But it requires someone not wholly consumed with politics as are most national figures these days to understand this and express it as Reagan did. Remember, this is a man who read the comics and the sports section in the morning before the news pages.

It is rare to have a window into a public figure working out his views in real time. This collection, along with the previous two by the Andersons and Skinner, constitutes a primary source for all future historians and political scientists who evaluate the 40th president. No appraisal of Reagan can be complete without reckoning with the self-discipline and seriousness that is revealed here.

Mr. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Older Liberal Order, 1964-1980. He is now completing a second volume of The Age of Reagan on the presidential years, 1981-1989.


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