Politics & Policy

Remembering Close Reagan Aide Peter Hannaford

Hannaford with Reagan in 1980 (via PeterHannaford.net)

Peter Hannaford was closely involved with Ronald Reagan for over 25 years and played a major role in preparing both his speeches and the radio commentaries that kept him in the public eye before he ran for president in 1980.

The author or editor of ten books, he spoke just last Saturday night to a party celebrating his latest work, a collection of diary entries by the 1960s investigative journalist Drew Pearson, at a bookstore near his home in Eureka, Calif. He then went home and quietly died in his sleep at 82.

“We are all shocked and saddened by his passing, but glad he was able to spend his last night doing what he loved: being an author with a new book,” his friend Bob Duran says.

Hannaford, a top aide to Reagan during his time as governor, teamed up with fellow aide Michael Deaver to start a public-relations company after Reagan left Sacramento in 1975. They developed a plan to manage Reagan’s public schedule, keeping him visible after he left office. It involved a series of radio commentaries, a newspaper column, and a week of speaking engagements each month.

Hannaford drafted many of the early radio scripts, which Reagan then edited. The broadcasts took off and were eventually carried on 350 stations. Reagan would always sign off, “This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for listening.” He meant it, too, for a large number of his listeners wound up supporting him for president.

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The series ended when Reagan became an official candidate for president in 1980, but the germ of the idea was reborn after Reagan was sworn in. Reagan began a short weekly presidential radio address every Saturday. “The news made from these broadcasts became a staple topic on all the network television Sunday talk shows,” Hannaford later recalled. “All four presidents since Reagan have continued the Saturday broadcasts.”

I first got to meet Peter after he became director of public affairs for then-governor Reagan in 1974. He and Deaver were always on the lookout for ways to present their boss in a favorable light, and that was how our paths first crossed, when I was a Sacramento high school student.

Reagan, who had come to office in 1967 promising to crack down on campus unrest, frequently clashed with student protesters and hippies. He once told a crowd that “the last bunch of people here were carrying signs that said ‘make love, not war,’ but they didn’t look capable of doing either.”

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Yet Reagan was determined to connect with young people. Deaver and Hannaford came up with the idea that the governor should hold a weekly “news conference” with high-school students and answer their questions about state government and national issues.

The 30-minute show, The Governor and the Students, was taped on a weekday after school, then sent to TV stations all over the state for them to air as they wished at no cost. During the program’s last year, my civics teacher recommended me as a “panelist” on the show. After the first taping, I was asked if I would like to do it again. Flustered, I stuttered “sure.” I wound up appearing on a few more shows to ask the governor questions.

#share#Thus began my lifelong fascination with Ronald Reagan. Because the format was informal and low-pressure, he often got off some of his best one-liners and most insightful observations. “I am often asked what the difference between a small businessman and a big businessman is,” he told us once. “My answer is that a big businessman is what a small businessman would be if only the government would get out of the way and leave him alone.” (A partial archive of the video series, with many more such witticisms, is available at the Online Archive of California.)

When asked what advice he would give young people on how to get ahead in life, Reagan observed, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.” He said he kept a plaque on his desk with those words as a constant reminder. That plaque remained on Reagan’s desk when he moved to the Oval Office.

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Reagan made flubs on occasion. He got a little flustered during the taping of the last show, just a few weeks before he left office as governor. I asked him how he could say he had truly run a conservative administration when he had raised taxes overall, increased the number of state employees, and presided over dramatic growth in the state budget. He gave a somewhat evasive answer that blamed his having to contend with a Democratic legislature for six of his eight years in office.

With Peter’s death, the list of those remaining from Reagan’s inner circle is very small … but the ideas and inspiration that Reagan imparted to people continue to resonate.

Afterward, a couple of my fellow students attacked me for being disrespectful to the governor. Seeing this, Reagan came over and told them to lay off. “I didn’t anticipate that question,” he told us. He said he had learned a lot since his days as a first-term governor with no experience as an elected official. He promised that if he ever ran for office again he’d do things differently. It turned out he was right: Though during his presidency he similarly failed to convince Democratic legislators to reduce the size of government, he was far more accomplished at implementing his overall goals than he had been as governor.

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Reagan wasn’t done. I asked him how he prepared for his speeches. A beaming Reagan sat down and proceeded to explain how he would cram quotes and article citations on four-by-six index cards, color-coded by issue category. He showed some of the cards he carried with him in his jacket pocket and explained that he could vary their order and selection to create a completely fresh speech from old material. Peter and Mike Deaver later told me I had been given a valuable gift by a master and I should remember it. I did. To this day, I still use Reagan’s basic method when preparing my own speeches.

With Peter’s death, the list of those remaining from Reagan’s inner circle is very small — Ed Meese and Richard Allen are the most prominent. But the ideas and inspiration that Reagan imparted to people continue to resonate. “The hallmark of a great man is what lives on after him,” Peter told me once. “In Reagan’s case he will continue to inspire young people as long as there is a belief that America is an exceptional nation.”


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