Politics & Policy

‘Reagan’s Seeing-Eye Dog’

Anderson with President Reagan in the Oval Office, 1981 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
RIP to Martin Anderson, the man who set historians straight on Reagan

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.

“Marty was my entry point to both the Nixon and Reagan administrations,” economist Arthur Laffer told me Wednesday. “He knew what good policy was, that it would work if implemented, and he had the courage to push it even when he stepped on the toes of more political advisers.”

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.

Anderson also advised the Ford and George H. W. Bush administrations, but after he returned to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he devoted much of his time to ensuring that history judged Ronald Reagan correctly. In 1988, he wrote Revolution, which detailed how Reagan was able to steer government policy once in office. In 2001, he collaborated with his wife, Annelise, and academic Kiron Skinner to write Reagan in His Own Hand, a collection of the drafts of Reagan’s syndicated newspaper column and radio scripts, which were produced between 1975 and 1979 when Reagan was a private citizen. In 2009, he wrote Reagan’s Secret War, which gave the behind-the-scenes story of how Reagan conducted the Cold War. His last Reagan book will be published posthumously by Hoover next month. Peter Roff of U.S. News & World Report noted this week that these books proved that Reagan was “well-informed and even better read.” His ideas were “firmly grounded in conservative principles” and were often “quite nuanced.”

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.

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