Politics & Policy

Reagan and His Favorite Magazine

Buckley and Reagan in 1967, after Reagan’s first appearance on Firing Line
The impact of WFB and NR on America’s 40th president.

On October 23, 1980, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a confidential note to the Republican presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan. It was twelve days before the election that Buckley and other conservatives believed would result in Reagan’s becoming the 40th president of the United States. Buckley, who was scheduled to be in Brazil on November 4, instructed his office to post the letter only on the condition that Reagan was elected.

In the note, Buckley reminded Reagan that back in 1964 he had “teased” him by introducing him to an audience as “governor,” unaware that just two years later the fictional title would become a reality. “Obviously you didn’t know when to stop,” Buckley mused to his friend, who was now on the verge of becoming the first modern conservative to occupy the White House.

Buckley then turned to the business at hand, which was to discuss the important subject of presidential appointments. Buckley was not one who gave political advice easily. That may have been partially due to his negative experience during the 1964 presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater, in which Buckley had been poorly treated by a number of Goldwater’s advisers, who had leaked to the New York Times that Buckley and his colleagues from “the far right” were trying to bully their way into the campaign. The other issue was that Buckley did not feel he had a strong knowledge of political strategy and was not comfortable giving advice in that field. He believed that it was important to give Reagan his input about the type of individuals the new president should appoint to his administration. “What you need,” Buckley said, “obviously, isn’t men who are seeking government jobs, but men who might be persuaded to take them.” He argued that it was important to recruit figures who were independently prominent and successful enough that they were not desperately searching the nation’s capital for positions in the new administration. Buckley mentioned a few of the people he believed fit those guidelines. One was his old friend from Yale, lawyer Evan Galbraith, whom Reagan would eventually name ambassador to France. The other was Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and National Review contributor Anthony Dolan, who would play a significant role in crafting some of the president’s most important speeches. Other notable NR contributors who would go on to serve the administration included Aram Bakshian Jr., as head speechwriter; Daniel Oliver, as general counsel to the Education Department; and Mona Charen, as a speechwriter for Nancy Reagan. Ronald Reagan had articulated a clear agenda for what he wanted to accomplish as president, and his allies at National Review did not want him to waver from his objectives.

Buckley, NR publisher William Rusher, and the rest of the NR editorial staff believed that America had lost its way.

Buckley, NR publisher William Rusher, and the rest of the NR editorial staff believed that America had lost its way. Whether the issue at hand was the refusal to stem the rising tide of inflation and unemployment at home or the unwillingness to challenge the encroachment of the Soviet Union abroad, those at NR were determined to put the United States on a different course — one that would replace a weak and vacillating foreign policy with a muscular and decisive one, and an economy based on government intervention with one that thrived on the power of individual entrepreneurship and creative freedom. Ronald Reagan shared those objectives, and it was the hope of Buckley and his colleagues that he would get the chance to pursue them as president.

Reagan responded to Buckley’s letter in the latter part of November, within a month of becoming president-elect. In a brief reply that included the satirical suggestion that he was going to appoint Buckley ambassador to Afghanistan, Reagan made clear that he understood his friend’s message. “Rest assured, I want people of the type you mentioned and whose philosophy is akin to ours,” Reagan wrote. The new president’s comments were prophetic, because Buckley’s impact on the administration would be significant. Anthony Dolan, in a letter to Buckley in 1982, praised him for being a critical factor in shaping the ideology of the Reagan administration.

In thus praising Buckley, Dolan validated the very reasons he had established National Review back in 1955. Those objectives were to use the magazine as a platform to propose conservative solutions to national and international problems and to forward strategies to be utilized by those on the Right within the GOP to see that these solutions were applied to the creation of public policy. Dolan wrote to Buckley that he should be proud of the number of youthful members of the administration “who have been deeply influenced by you and National Review and . . . are, in fact, conservatives because of that joint influence.”

SLIDESHOW: Remembering WFB

It seems particularly appropriate to recall Dolan’s comments now, as National Review celebrates its 60th anniversary. The arguments the publication continues to make on behalf of limited government and a strong national defense are the same ones that assisted Ronald Reagan as he began his transition into politics after a successful career as a screen actor.

Reagan had been a fervent admirer of National Review from its earliest years, and he continued to read it throughout his tenure as governor and then president. “I’d be lost without National Review,” Reagan wrote in a note to Buckley in June of 1962. While many of the positions that defined Reagan’s political beliefs — like anti-Communism and a devotion to limited government and lower taxes — were based on his own experiences in Hollywood as head of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1953, much of the information that clarified Reagan’s views about specific domestic and foreign-policy issues was acquired from NR. “Reagan had an incredible memory for things he’d read years before,” recalls longtime National Review contributor Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as the director of speechwriting in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983, “and he drew on that from his own memory all the time.” In the late Fifties and early Sixties, as he traveled the country as a spokesman for General Electric, Reagan slowly and deliberately digested the ideas of Buckley and NR Senior Editors James Burnham and Frank Meyer on how to roll back the New Deal and the hegemonic appetites of the Soviet Union. Reagan continued that practice during his presidency, and the information and analysis he obtained from NR assisted him in formulating policy while in the Oval Office.

Buckley and Reagan had been friends since the former actor had introduced the commentator at an event in Los Angeles in 1961. That meeting — which Buckley recounts in colorful detail in his final book, The Reagan I Knew — began a friendship that lasted until Reagan’s death in 2004. While a number of those close to Reagan contend that the president simply enjoyed Buckley’s erudite company, Reagan took the advice he received from Buckley under serious consideration in the years before and during his presidency.

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In October of 1971, three months after President Richard Nixon had announced his intention of visiting the People’s Republic of China, Governor Reagan called Nixon to express his frustration following the vote that removed Taiwan from the United Nations and admitted the PRC in its place. The governor went on to tell the president that the U.N. was nothing more than a forum for international debate and that the United States should announce that it would no longer vote or be bound by the decisions of the organization. That idea had been suggested by Buckley, during a conversation with Reagan shortly before the U.N. vote. In early December, Reagan wrote to Buckley expressing his appreciation for the suggestion. “I didn’t credit you with the idea,” Reagan said, as he briefly summarized his talk with Nixon. “As we know now, your idea wasn’t picked up. I still think it should be and think it would bring that debating society into proper focus.”

Other writers at National Review also assisted Reagan in staying on top of the latest information concerning issues of national security. In March of 1971, the magazine had published a lengthy article by Charles Benson on the state of America’s nuclear defense. The article’s key message was that the United States’ lead in nuclear weapons had so eroded that, if the Soviet Union continued to progress in its military spending, it would achieve nuclear superiority. The piece was confirmation that the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were hurting rather than helping the United States, and it supplied more ammunition for the Right’s charges that the many concessions made by American diplomats had resulted in a crisis for the nation’s national security.

The article, according to Buckley, was read by many prominent figures on the Right, including Governor Reagan, who had had his attention drawn to the piece by his former speechwriter and longtime National Review editor Jeffrey Hart. In a note to Hart in April of 1971, Reagan described the article as “frightening” and mentioned that he had discussed Benson’s arguments during a conversation with Nixon; he added that the president was “aware and in agreement with the views expressed.”

#share#While Reagan remained a voracious reader throughout the Seventies, his many commitments risked preventing him from remaining on top of the issues that would confront a future presidential candidate. But Buckley, perhaps knowing of Reagan’s desire to run for president again following his abbreviated attempt in 1968, strongly advised him not to lose sight of that goal. “I heard it said about you — by a well wisher –that it will have to be Rockefeller in 1976 ‘because you refuse to wrap your mind around foreign policy,’” Buckley wrote in a confidential note to Reagan in the fall of 1973. “You must prove such skeptics wrong, and it is not too early to start.” Buckley suggested that Reagan hire a full-time foreign-policy expert and suggested someone on the staff of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. That note was a clear indication of Buckley’s conviction that Reagan still had the opportunity to become president.

When Reagan launched his campaign to seize the GOP nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, Buckley continued to give him the encouragement and intellectual ammunition that he hoped would lead to Reagan’s success. As the candidate criticized the Ford administration’s lackluster response to Soviet aggression around the world, Buckley supplied Reagan with material that included columns by James Burnham, as well as the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology. In a telegram to the candidate in the summer of 1976, Buckley wrote that the information he had sent “confirms absolutely Soviet violation of SALT1 accord.” Although Reagan lost a close nomination battle to President Ford, Buckley and his colleagues believed that he would have another opportunity in 1980.

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Over the intervening years, Reagan continued to remain in the public eye. Buckley’s criticisms of the Carter administration — on issues ranging from the nuclear-arms disparity between the United States and the Soviet Union, to the energy crisis, to the Panama Canal, all discussed in his newspaper columns, on Firing Line, and in the pages of NR — contributed to Reagan’s  winning the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.

In his final comments to the American public before the 1980 election, Reagan advocated many of the same positions that he had read over the years in the pages of NR. The ideas that he had digested during those lonely hours as he traveled from one GE plant to another became the ideological foundation for his presidency.

Rusher believed that Reagan had the capacity to be a great president. However, that could be achieved only if those he hired shared his conservative beliefs.

The 1980 election victory gave Buckley and his colleagues hope that it was not too late to revive the economic and military strength that had dissipated through decades of poor leadership by both Republican and Democratic administrations. But, although Buckley and Rusher knew Reagan held strongly to his own views, they believed it was important to remind him regularly that if he was to succeed, he must bring into his administration people who shared his desire for the new direction in which he wanted to take the country. Rusher, like his editor-in-chief, believed that Reagan had the capacity to be a great president. However, that could be achieved only if those he hired shared his conservative beliefs.

While many of the individuals recruited by the administration — Bakshian, Dolan, Oliver, et al. — did indeed share those beliefs, there were also a number of others who gave Buckley and his colleagues cause for concern. Many of these moderate Republicans, whom Rusher referred to as having “Ivy League degrees and names like J. Parmalee Butterthorpe III — or James Addison Baker III,” were no fans of National Review. When Rusher and Buckley invited the president to the opening of the magazine’s Capitol Hill office at the beginning of 1983, Reagan’s director of appointments and scheduling, William Sadleir, recommended that he decline the invitation. However, Sadleir was overruled by Communications Director David Gergen, one of whose staffers wrote on the form Sadleir had submitted: “Gergen recommends that he do — helps to keep in touch with our base.”

RELATED: Reagan: Too Big to Judge?

Reagan frequently clipped articles from National Review and gave them to like-minded advisers in the White House, and the influence of the magazine could also be seen in the speechwriting process that disseminated the president’s conservative philosophy. Speechwriters like Dolan and Bakshian had absorbed from NR not only policy positions but also a unique tone that informed the remarks they crafted for the president. “[It was] a style and a way of thinking that had been shaped by National Review that came to us naturally,” recalls Bakshian. “The influence was there and it was felt and it was palpable even if it did not have a paper trail.” Both Bakshian and Dolan, who wrote speeches for Reagan throughout his entire time in office, agreed that Reagan was a man of ideas — that he was, as Richard Brookhiser put it, “the author of his own success.” And one of those ideas was a conviction that the Soviet Union and its hegemonic desires to expand Communism throughout the world could be defeated. “It was clear from the top down that Reagan viewed what was going on as an ideological struggle — a struggle for the ages against what was the quintessential totalitarian system,” Bakshian said.

Bakshian’s description of Reagan’s view of the Cold War was very much the type of language consistently employed by James Burnham, whose ideas were seen as critical to Reagan’s success in the defeat of the Soviet Union. When Reagan awarded Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, he stated that Burnham had assisted him a great deal in the views he articulated. “Throughout the years traveling on the mashed-potato circuit I have quoted you widely,” Reagan said. Author Robert Merry argues that it was no surprise that Reagan chose to bestow on Burnham the highest civilian honor that an American could receive. “If the Gipper was key to winning the Cold War, then Burnham laid the intellectual blueprint for him,” Merry wrote in the July–August 2014 issue of The National Interest. Reagan’s desire to end that struggle in favor of the United States would be one of the things that defined his administration.

‘I can assure you: NATIONAL REVIEW is to the offices of the West Wing of the White House what People magazine is to your dentist’s waiting room,’ the president said.

During the course of his presidency, Reagan sometimes took actions that did not please his allies at National Review, particularly in his negotiations with the U.S.S.R. However, while the president knew Buckley and his colleagues were occasionally unhappy with the policy direction of the administration, he never forgot how much National Review had meant to him and how much its ideas had contributed to the success of his presidency. In 1983, during the celebration of the opening of the magazine’s Washington, D.C., office, Reagan, in remarks drafted by Bakshian, joked about the important role NR had played in the staffing of his administration: “I think you know that National Review is my favorite magazine,” Reagan said. “I’ve even paid the ultimate compliment of commandeering two of your longtime contributors, Aram Bakshian and Tony Dolan, on our White House staff.” Two years later, in December of 1985, Reagan spoke at the magazine’s 30th-anniversary celebration. In his comments, Reagan referred to William F. Buckley Jr. as one who had “changed our country, indeed our century.” In praising the journal that Buckley had founded, Reagan made it clear that it was required reading in his administration. “I can assure you: National Review is to the offices of the West Wing of the White House what People magazine is to your dentist’s waiting room,” the president said as a grinning Buckley looked on.

While Reagan talked about the importance of the magazine to the many who had grown up in the conservative movement, he also emphasized what he argued was the publication’s greatest contribution: the campaign against international totalitarianism. “You didn’t just part the Red Sea,” the president said, “you rolled it back, dried it up and left it exposed for all the world to see the naked desert that is statism.” As National Review celebrates its 60th anniversary, that statement is still appropriate as it relates to the contribution the magazine continues to make to the history of American conservatism. Happy birthday, NR!


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