Reagan’s Greatness Can Be Put Into Words

Hundreds of articles have appeared this week about the life and presidency of this charismatic and adored man, Ronald Reagan.  The one below reveals a unique and intimate view of the man’s character and his thoughtfulness.  It is reprinted with permission from its author Andrew Ferguson of Bloomberg News, in its entirety.

Bloomberg June 9, 2004

As someone who once spent a misbegotten sabbatical from journalism writing political speeches — I worked for the first President Bush from January 1992 to January 1993, when I was involuntarily removed from the White House grounds along with the president — I have always been puzzled by Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric.

He was a master, of course. Among 20th-century U.S. presidents, only Franklin Roosevelt, and perhaps John Kennedy, could rival his ability to move a crowd with words. Bunkered in the first Bush White House, we speechwriters would study Reagan’s old speeches, pulling them apart and putting them back together again in an attempt to summon the magic — by reverse engineering, if need be.  It never worked. Our man Bush had his own admirable gifts, but speechmaking wasn’t one of them. Reagan’s shadow got in the way, and in their frustration many Bush staffers convinced themselves that the gift for rhetoric was itself a show biz trick best left toHollywood actors.

A lot of people would agree, including the many professional speechwriters who, impatient with their traditional anonymity, claim bragging rights for every memorable phrase that falls from a politician’s lips. It seems naive nowadays to credit a politician with his own speeches — as though Charlie McCarthy were responsible for Edgar Bergen’s jokes.

His Own Hand

With Reagan this distinction is crucial, for his “communication skills” are inextricable from the greatness his partisans claim for him. So where did this greatness come from his speechwriters, or from some inner resource of his own?  The best place to find the answer is in a book written indisputably by the man himself.  “Reagan in His Own Hand,” published in 2001, is a collection of radio commentaries written during what Reagan sentimentalists call, rather grandly, the Wilderness Years.

Having lost the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford, Reagan bided his time till the next presidential election by putting out a newspaper column and syndicating a series of daily radio talks.  A ghostwriter wrote the column. Still a radio announcer at heart, Reagan took pleasure in writing the three-minute broadcast scripts himself, by hand — nearly 750 of them, reproduced in the book with all his emendations, crossovers, re-phrasings, and peculiar abbreviations.

A Matter of Ear

Reagan had a writer’s ear. In one script he recalls composing a letter for a time capsule while driving up theCaliforniacoast. He wonders about the generation who will read the letter 100 years on: “Either they will be surrounded by the same beauty I knew as I wrote the letter or they will wonder sadly what it was like before that awful day when civilization broke down.”

Not bad.  But then he rewrites: “Either they will be surrounded by the same beauty we know or they will wonder what it was like when the world was still beautiful.”

From the first draft to the second, there is a loss of eight needless words and a maximum gain in power; the sentence grows from a private reflection to a universal forewarning.

Cold War Menace

That passage also shows Reagan’s great obsession. He felt the menace of the Cold War in his bones — far more deeply, I’d wager, than the fools who caricatured him as a warmonger. The theme of “East-West tensions,” as they were called, recurs in these scripts, and he betrays no doubt as to where the blame lies.

“Communism is neither an ec. or pol. system — it is a form of insanity — a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature,” he wrote in one script.

This was December 1976, 13 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan thought that American indecision and self-doubt only postponed Communism’s inevitable end (“D,tente isn’t that what the farmer has with the turkey till Thanksgiving?”) and that American strength would hasten it.

Sound Economy

Yet “peace through strength” was more than a matter of military buildup — though such a buildup was essential. “Power,” he wrote, “is not only military strength but a sound economy.” And throughout these scripts he showed he understood how an economy was supposed to work.

“Our system freed the individual genius of man,” he wrote in another script, “released him to fly as high and as far as his own talent and energy would take him.”

To prove this idea wasn’t just sentimentality, Reagan then elaborated a plainspoken and accurate summary of how the price mechanism works — obviously paraphrased from one of his favorite books, Friedrich von Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”

Reagan read and wrote constantly before he won the presidency. “He was acting as a one-man think tank,” wrote the editors of this collection of scripts. Yet he wasn’t an intellectual, and the claims of his fans to the contrary – one exuberant reviewer compared “In His Own Hand” to the Federalist Papers (down, boy!) only diminish his genuine gifts.

He was, above all, a politician, a practical man who combined his taste for words and ideas with a talent for putting them into action. But his practical efforts always began with ideas. Anyone who wants to understand Reagan must contend with the long paper trail he left behind. His own words lead back to the source of his greatness, long before any speechwriter could claim him.

Andrew Ferguson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.