Politics & Policy

Reincarnating Reagan

Is Fred Thompson the real thing?

Much of the reaction to the formal debut of Fred Thompson in the presidential campaign has focused on his “positioning” within the Republican party, citing the opinions of various commentators as to whether he’s a “conservative,” a “moderate” or something else. Special focus was immediately on the similarities and differences between Thompson and Ronald Reagan, which has inevitably evoked opinions from former Reagan advisors and colleagues. The similarities are clear: both are men with political experience, albeit on different levels; both were actors, and seem to be estimated at the “B” level; and both have displayed a folksy, down-to-earth ability to advocate and communicate complex political themes.

And both have suffered the belittling of their fellow politicians for their tenure as actors. Of course, the reason politicians belittle actors in the public square, is that they all wish they could be as good as a “B” actor.

The Abortion Thicket

On at least one central theme, abortion, both men also appear to have had an epiphany, changing from a stance in favor of abortion to one very determinately against . I know something about Reagan’s conviction on the subject, having been an advisor over a period of years prior to his presidency, and having spent many hours with him in airplanes, cars, busses, and meetings.

One such meeting on the topic took place in December 1979 at a hotel at Los Angeles International Airport, the final briefing and strategy session before the presidential campaign began in early 1980. It was a small group that met, chaired by then-campaign manager John Sears, who had earlier succeeded in driving off several key Reagan folks such as Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, and Martin Anderson, and was working on getting rid of others.

Sears insisted that Reagan would not participate in the Iowa caucuses, principally because it was a “beefcake show” and Reagan would win anyway. No one contested the Sears mandate, though it was apparent that Reagan was not entirely comfortable with the assumption that his absence would not be noticed. The session moved on; I had completed the foreign policy component of the day, and domestic issues were of more immediate importance. The topic of Reagan’s position on abortion was launched, with Sears intoning that the Reagan position would necessarily be one of support for “choice.”

I had often discussed the topic with Reagan in relaxed moments, and knew what his position was, at least since 1977. Reagan quickly said, “No, John..that ‘s not my position.” Sears reminded Reagan that, as governor of California, he had signed into law a measure that permitted abortion in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. Reagan responded, “Yes, I know I did. But I have given a lot of thought since to the matter; it was a mistake and that law paved the way for abortion on demand. I now consider abortion to be murder.” Sears countered, “Well, Governor, that can be your private position, but for the purposes of this campaign, the theme will favor limited abortion.”

At that, Reagan flushed, took off his glasses and flung them across the conference table – a classic sign that he was at his maximum anger level—saying, “Listen, dammit, John…I am running for president and you are not! Got it?” End of discussion; he never looked back, never wavered in his conviction, knew that he would be flying in the face of increasing pro-abortion sentiment, and instructed us to make sure that his position ultimately became the plank of the party platform that year. In fact, it was only in large measure because George Bush agreed, at the very last minute, to embrace that plank and the Reagan economic program (both of which he had strenuously opposed in the primaries, calling Reagan’s economic plan “Voodoo economics”) that Bush received the nod to be Reagan’s running mate in 1980. Absent that wholehearted embrace of the two key points of the Reagan position, Bush would not have had a chance.

Sears was wrong about the Iowa caucuses (Bush won and gained “big Mo,” for “momentum”) and Reagan lost; he was wrong that it was clever to spend nearly all the campaign money up front, and became increasingly estranged from the candidate (and, importantly, Nancy Reagan). Thus Sears was unceremoniously fired by Reagan at 4pm on the very afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, which Reagan won (because after the Iowa disaster, he took direct control of the New Hampshire campaign). Deaver, Nofziger, and Anderson all returned immediately.

Thompson, too, father of five, at some moment had his own moment of realization concerning the issue of abortion – and not conveniently in the face of his decision to run for president His was not an eleventh-hour politically inspired epiphany. While candidates frequently trim their positions on issues, the Reagan and Thompson experiences really underscore that no candidate should ever be denied credibility upon changing such a fundamental position on the issue of the sanctity of human life. The public can perceive when a change has been made for mere tactical reasons, as is the case of Hillary Clinton on so many issues. None of Thompson’s announced positions appear to fit that category.

Communicating and the Camera

Reagan’s communication skills are generally acknowledged to have been unsurpassed in the last century, save perhaps by those of Franklin Roosevelt. Even his staunch opponents would often say, “I don’t like his policies, but I know where he stands.” Reagan never resented being dismissed by the political Establishment or the media as an actor who merely “read his lines from three by five cards,” and was unable think for himself. The “cards” were actually four by eight inches, and on them he wrote in nearly indecipherable shorthand, precisely what he wanted to say in a speech or statement. His well-honed skills over many years, his discipline, and his constant study and writing habits, are all well documented in the trove of original materials now available through the research and scholarship of the last 15 years.

For his part, Thompson does not have the storehouse of published and spoken words and strong public policy advocacy that Reagan had at a similar point in approaching the presidency, but Thompson’s own Washington experience dates to the early 1970s; it involved the baptism by fire of the Senate Watergate hearings that riveted the nation’s attention for an extended period, exposed a massive scandal, and resulted in the demise of a presidency. After all, staged or not, Republican Thompson asked the key question of Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield that revealed a tape recording system in the Oval Office, and from there it was all downhill for Nixon. Thirty-five years of experience in and near the government arena is enough to provide the essential skills and qualifications to serve as President.

On the morning of Reagan’s debate with Jimmy Carter in Cleveland in late October 1980, I encountered Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell emerging from the breakfast room of the hotel, where both Carter and Reagan, and their entourages, were housed. We chatted briefly, and Jordan’s parting comment was, “We’re going to kill your guy tonight.” I inquired how that would be done, and Jordan responded, “With the facts…Our guy has the facts, and it’s too late for your guy to learn the facts.”

Within the hour, I was in Reagan’s suite for a briefing, and related the conversation with the two Carter aides. Reagan, too, asked how he would be “killed” that evening, and when I repeated the answer I had been given, he smiled and winked, saying “Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?” That evening Carter handed him the opening he was craftily waiting for, and Reagan lowered the boom, exclaiming “there you go again…” No slaying took place that night; rather, a near-successful attempt at self-destruction by Carter would be a more apt description. In 1989, just after his presidency, Reagan was asked by Jim Lehrer in an interview, “Was ‘there you go again’ a line that just came to you spontaneously, or was it something that you had worked on?” Reagan responded, “No, it just seemed to be the thing to say…”

Once, while accompanying Reagan on a late 1979 pre-primary trip to Houston, we were sitting side-by-side in an airplane, headed back to California and faced with a stiff headwind. Reagan was working on his announcement speech, to be given later that month. We talked about the speech, relaxed, and I thought it opportune to ask a question I had been mulling for some time: “Governor, what do you think is the essential difference between watching and listening to you on the one hand, and to Carter on the other?” He thought for a moment, and then said “Well, when you watch Carter you may think of yourself standing down in a plaza with several thousand people, being addressed as a large group by him; when you watch me, I hope you are thinking that I am speaking directly to you.” It was profoundly simple. But how did he achieve that effect, I inquired. He said, “Well, when I am in a television studio, I look at the camera and speak to it just as I would a single friend. I actually think of the camera as a friend.” And then, he closed: “The camera does not lie.” It was something I would never forget.

Keeping It Simple

Fred Thompson appears have those same qualities of communication — straightforward, concise, to the point, and easily understood – and not as if he has just been briefed by aides and advisers on a new seven-point program. In his several blog videos on “YouTube” and his Internet announcement video, he displays a straightforwardness of style and the capacity to communicate effectively. As Tony Blankley recently put it, “He talks like an American, not like a Washington politician.”

Does his acting experience give him that advantage? Yes, of course it does, just as it yielded Reagan a huge advantage that went unrecognized for so long, to the initial detriment of his condescending opponents in his own party and on the other side – and to their ultimate peril. Will anyone forget the classic confrontation with George Bush in New Hampshire primary debate in February 1980, when Reagan grabbed the microphone as the moderator tried to cut him off, declaring “Wait a minute, Mr. Green, I paid for this microphone!”

Perhaps my most memorable moment with Reagan came in February 1977, just days after Carter was inaugurated. I visited the ex-governor in his Los Angeles home, and asked him to do something for me. He readily agreed, then asked if I had time to talk about foreign policy and national security before heading East that day. I did indeed, and we had a discussion that spanned several hours, until mid-afternoon.

By the time I prepared to take leave, I had experienced a remarkable dialogue, and concluded that Reagan, whom I had supported against Ford in 1976, was an extraordinary political personality. He said, “Before we break here, I’d like to tell you my theory of the Cold War.” I nodded, waiting. He went on: Well, some people say I’m simplistic, but there is a difference between being simplistic and having simple answers to complex problems…my theory of the Cold War is we win and they lose. What do you think of that?” That “simple” declaration of Reagan’s was a very special, electric moment; it remained with me for years before I finally revealed it, and it influenced my own choices from that moment forward. Never before had I heard the notion of “victory” in the long-term struggle with the communists expressed so forthrightly by a prospective leader. I had no idea whether Reagan would ever consider standing for president in 1980, but told him immediately that should he decide in favor, I wanted to help.

It is undoubtedly too early to attribute the same comprehensive and plain-spoken vision to Fred Thompson, although his out-of-the gates speeches and remarks are very reminiscent of Reagan. But if they are there in Thompson they will reveal themselves; the Reagan qualities cannot be feigned or sustained for very long. Deep conviction will always be apparent as a campaign wears on, and the scarcity of it thus far in the wildly early presidential race has been conspicuous by its absence.

Besides, while Reagan approached the 1980 race with no hands-on experience in foreign affairs and national security (though he had fully formed policy positions), Thompson brings broad familiarity with the field, and has been active as chair of the State department’s International Security Advisory Board. He has also been affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute.

Reagan clearly set the gold standard for modern conservatives; one only needs to watch the Republican candidates lay claim to positions “identical to Ronald Reagan’s,” appeal to his presidency as a model and strive to appear as friendly and outgoing, able to work effectively with everyone to understand this Republican “fact of life.” I have known Thompson for many years, have met and spent time with him since, and conclude that he’s the genuine article. He also has in his wife, Jeri, as did Reagan in Nancy, a well-informed and capable partner.

There will likely never be another Reagan in our times, but in my own experience, lawyer-senator-actor Fred Thompson may well be providing the closest approximation for 2008, and that’s not an unworthy or invidious comparison.

–Richard V. Allen, long-time foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and his first national security adviser, was also foreign-policy coordinator for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. He is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University.

Richard V. AllenMr. Allen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He was the national-security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1982, the chief foreign-policy adviser to Reagan from 1977 to 1981, and the foreign-policy coordinator in the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon.


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