American liberals always had a problem with Ronald Reagan. He was, they thought, no more than an “amiable dunce,” a mouthpiece for someone pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Yet through the hurly-burly of political contests over the span of a quarter-century, the dunce cleaned up on a regular basis. He was elected California governor in 1966 and 1970, and elected United States president in 1980 and 1984. He even thrived in live debates!
This contradiction makes the new book from liberal academic Robert Mann interesting.
In Becoming Ronald Reagan, Mann sets out to investigate the formative years leading up to Reagan’s emergence as a full-blown political phenomenon in the mid-1960s. And he’s surprised at what he found.
To quote: “I had always viewed Reagan as an incurious, befuddled man who relied on a team of speechwriters to tell him what to believe and say. Studying Reagan from the 1950s and early 1960s disabused me of this.”
Take the proposition that Reagan never read anything.
In reality, he was a “voracious reader,” regularly devouring newspapers, magazines and political columns. On a movie set, he was liable to be found between takes with his nose in a book. And if something he read caught his fancy, it went into his memory bank and was subsequently difficult to dislodge.
This, of course, didn’t necessarily make Reagan an expert on public policy. Indeed, he can be fairly critiqued as someone who uncritically absorbed and retained information that fitted with his views, what we now call confirmation bias.
Mann puts a special focus on the years 1954 to 1962, the period during which Reagan was involved with General Electric (GE).
Then the third largest employer in the United States, GE hired Reagan to host their weekly TV show and travel for at least 16 weeks a year acting as goodwill ambassador. In that capacity, he’d meet employees and give speeches. And with 136 manufacturing plants and 700,000 employees spread over 28 states, this provided an itinerary and an audience crucial to the honing of his beliefs and rhetorical style.
Ronald Reagan’s remarkable mission to Moscow by Pat Murphy
Because he detested flying and avoided it where he could, Reagan’s travels for GE were by train. During those long trips, he read, mulled, worked through his views and created what evolved into his standard speech. In the process, the man who’d been an active liberal Democrat in the 1930s and ’40s morphed into the most consequential Republican conservative of the 20th century.
GE didn’t write Reagan’s material. For the most part, he was his own researcher/writer, clipping bits out of newspapers and magazines, memorizing anecdotes and statistics, and fashioning it all into an engaging presentation that wowed and impressed audiences. Over time, the content became increasingly political.
This self-authoring had its drawbacks. Facts weren’t checked, which meant that sometimes they were wrong, exaggerated or oversimplified. And ever the performer who drew strength from audience approval, Reagan was reluctant to let go of applause lines.
If the GE years were crucial to Reagan’s development, Mann also cites prior evidence of rhetorical talent.
For a June 1952 commencement address to a small women’s college in Missouri, Reagan produced what Mann describes as “a masterpiece.” It was an illustration of “the most effective and persuasive tool in his rhetorical arsenal: his ability to use stories to make a point, transport his audience to another place and time, and appeal to their emotions.”
An anecdote from 1949 is perhaps even more instructive.
As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan was in New York on union business and a labour lawyer named Robert Gilbert sought to give him a detailed briefing on the issue at hand. Reagan demurred, opting instead to be briefed en route in the cab.
Gilbert’s recounting of what transpired is interesting: “So I briefed him in the cab. He made a two-hour speech based on a 15-minute briefing – and it was fabulous. The guy could absorb what he was told and regurgitate it. He was very glib and articulate – even if he didn’t understand it.”
Gilbert’s sting-in-the-tail condescension notwithstanding, what he described is a relatively rare gift. Indicative of quickness, it suggests an ability to extract the essence of a topic on the fly and credibly improvise around it. It’s certainly not the characteristic of a dunce.
By embracing a cartoon image of Reagan, liberals may have enjoyed the sense of feeling superior. But self-gratification had a price.
Grossly underestimating their political opponent, they inevitably empowered him. That’s never smart.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.