Reagan the “Great Communicator”

Ronald Reagan won his first presidential victory despite the unrelenting hostility of the news media, which was much more of a monopoly that it is now, and despite his advanced age. He went on to won his second victory in a historic 49 state landslide, which seems inconceivable now. But Mr. Reagan was an unabashed Conservative, supposedly too Conservative to be elected. Yet Mr. Reagan commanded not only the Right, but the also won over the center of American political life.

How did Ronald Reagan do this? How did he win over so many voters?

Mr. Reagan was indeed the Great Communicator, a title he apparently bestowed upon himself. But the title has stuck because it fits. Mr. Reagan’s most reliable biographer, Lou Cannon, gets close to the explanation. Cannon said that Ronald Reagan “was a guy who had a natural connection with people.”

But that is a little bit misleading. Mr. Reagans did have a connection with people. And his apparent simplicity and humor made that connection seem natural. In fact, that effectiveness was no more “natural” than Arnold Palmer’s golf swing, or Chet Baker’s trumpet playing. There has to be talent at the outset for great success to be possible. But the appearance of effortlessness, of naturalness, is in fact the result of hard, focused, persistent effort.

Mr. Reagan was an ambitious man who succeeded in every field he entered. He was a successful lifeguard, athlete, sportscaster, movie actor, union president and politician. In each case he focused on mastering the necessary skills. While he is falsely remembered as lazy, in fact, across his entire professional life he was usually diligent and well-prepared.

The most important skill a politician has is motivating citizens to vote for him, and then to continue to support him after he has been elected. Mr. Reagan figured out how to do this, and mastered it. His “natural” connection to his fellow citizens, like all of his other successes, was also the result of diligence and preparation.

Our presidents have generally been either patricians, who were born to privilege and wealth, like FDR and JFK, or poor, self-made “kids from nowhere” — like Richard Nixon and the “man from Hope.” Reagan was in the latter category. And unlike many who later succeeded in life, Mr. Reagan never lost his awareness of the concerns and motivations of the less well-off Americans. His Hollywood career was during the age when the big studios carefully calibrated their movies to appeal to the mainstream ideas and values of Americans. His tours speaking on behalf of General Electric brought him into contact with American workers and managers around the country, and their hopes and worries. So, President Reagan started out with a firm basis for his “natural connection” to his fellow Americans.

But the most under-rated detail about Mr. Reagan is his treatment of his correspondence, his “mail bag”. Even after he was elected President, often to the despair of his aides, who thought he had “more important” things to, President Reagan spent several hours per week reading letters from ordinary Americans. Mr. Reagan would respond, in his own hand, to some of these letters. He never allowed himself to get too far from the thoughts and phrases of his fellow Americans. He disciplined himself to articulate responses to their concerns, in words they would grasp and respond to. This process, like batting practice, like the ballerina at the barre, was what made Mr. Reagan the Great Communicator.

Reagan Roundtable: The Cold War Ends

I pity the fool. I pity 'em.
I pity the fool. I pity 'em.

It is altogether fitting that Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the USSR with hate only to kill it with love.

American public discourse offers us two major explanations for the end of the Cold War. One explanation was, “the Soviet Union didn’t fall, it was pushed.” The opposing explanation holds that a tau neutrino fired from a neutron star on the far side of the Andromeda Galaxy 2.6 million years ago that collided with one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s synapses on June 24, 1959 had more to do with the end of the Cold War than either the United States or President Ronald Reagan.

Some observers (kind according to their own lights) take a more moderate course. They’ll concede that Reagan had something to do with the end of the Cold War. Perhaps mesmerized by the sight of his own reflection looking back at him from Gorby’s shiny bald head, the senile old dinosaur was stunned into a quiescence sufficient to allow Gorby to let peace break out without the hurdle of Reagan’s habitual warmongering. Under other circumstances, Reagan would wake up, eat his Wheaties, break out a map, and plan which bastion of worker’s solidarity he would besiege that day. Gorby’s charm and skill in handling this wild rampaging elephant of imperialist plutocracy was only just enough to overcome even the power of the Breakfast of Champions and end the Cold War.

Others concede that Reagan was more than a patsy skillfully played by a smooth talking Commie. Instead, he was a patsy skillfully played by a smooth talking State Department. In this version, George Schultz and other enlightened diplomats slowly weaned Reagan away from the Precambrian depths of his native Birchery and convinced him that speaking softly was more constructive than his unthinking waving of a big stick. The mandarins of Foggy Bottom supplied the script and Reagan, secretly yearning the direction of Hollywood days of yore, performed his role with all the aplomb a B-movie actor could summon. Reagan was convinced that the diminutive Gorby was Bonzo. It was his job to put the little bald chimp to bed with all the tender care a leading man could devote to an expensive studio prop. If Gorbachev happened to outshine him, it was all in good fun. Reagan understood in the light of the timeless wisdom of W.C. Fields: “Never work with animals or children”.

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Ronald Reagan Roundtable: “full of jovial doom”

Knowing of my interest in matters apocalyptic, you wouldn’t expect me to pass up President Reagan‘s connection with Ezekiel and the Revelation of John of Patmos on an occasion such as this, would you?


I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of people who believe in prophecy having their fingers on the triggers of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan was one such, and didn’t press the trigger — a fact for which I am profoundly grateful. Perhaps it was his “jovial” approach to “doom” that made the difference.

The story is actually quite fascinating. I first ran across mention of it in Stephen O’Leary’s (politically neutral) book, Arguing the Apocalypse, researched it a little more and found the account in Sara Diamond’s (leftwards) book, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, and verified the story’s legs by finding it in this account by Joel Rosenberg (right-leaning, Christian, apocalyptic), which I believe can be found in his book The Epicenter but which I’m quoting here from his website FAQ:

In 1971, Reagan—then governor of California—attended a banquet to honor State Senator James Mills. After the main course, he asked Mills if he was familiar with “the fierce Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.” He went on to explain that Russia was the Magog described in Ezekiel’s prophecy and was thus doomed to destruction.
“In the thirty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel it says God will take the children of Israel from among the heathen [where] they’d been scattered and will gather them again in the promised land,” Reagan told Mills. “Ezekiel says that . . . the nation that will lead all the other powers into darkness against Israel will come out of the north. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel [besides Russia]? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description perfectly.” Reagan conceded that “everything hasn’t fallen into place yet,” but he strongly believed the end of the Soviet empire and the second coming of Christ were increasingly close at hand.
In his 1997 book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Edmund Morris—the president’s official biographer—revealed that Ezekiel was actually Reagan’s “favorite book of prophecy.” Morris also recounted an intriguing scene he personally witnessed in the Oval Office in which Reagan discussed the Ezekiel option with White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker and National Security Advisor Colin Powell.
“We talk mainly about religion,” read the notes of Morris’s meeting with Reagan on February 9, 1988. “I have been reading a book about his Armageddon complex, and, when I mention the subject, am rewarded by an animated speech, full of jovial doom, that lasts the rest of the half hour. … [White House chief of Staff] Howard Baker and [National Security Advisor] Colin Powell arrive, impatient for their own thirty minutes. ‘We’re having a cozy chat about Armageddon,’ I say. They stand grinning nervously as he continues.”
“When it comes [Ezekiel 38–39],” Reagan explained to his senior staff, “the man who comes from the wrong side, into the war, is the man, according to the prophecies, named Gog, from Meshech, which is the ancient name of Moscow—”
“I tell you, Mr. President,” Baker replied. “I wish you’d quit talking about that. You upset me!”
But Reagan continued to talk about such things, as he had for many years.
I once asked Michael Reagan, the president’s son, if such accounts rang true. He confirmed that they did, noting that his father firmly believed he was living in history’s last days and thought that he might even see the return of Christ in his lifetime.
Ronald Reagan was a devout Christian. He was a student of the Bible. He was fascinated with end-times prophecies. He believed they were true. He talked about them with friends and colleagues. They helped shape his view that the Soviet Union, and the system of evil it advanced and perpetuated, was not long for this world. For a movie actor turned president like Ronald Reagan, the Bible was indeed the greatest story ever told. He had read the last chapter, and thus he knew for certain that a day of reckoning—a day of justice—was coming.

That’s the “apocalyptic” angle — let’s see how the same faith actually played out on the world stage.

To do that, I’d like to follow that quote up with another, this one from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a group which advocates for nuclear disarmament:

According to his wife, Nancy, “Ronnie had many hopes for the future, and none were more important to America and to mankind than the effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons.”
President Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist. He believed that the only reason to have nuclear weapons was to prevent the then Soviet Union from using theirs. Understanding this, he argued in his 1984 State of the Union Address, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
Ronald Reagan regarded nuclear weapons, according to Nancy, as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.”
In 1986, President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev met for a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. In a remarkable quirk of history, the two men shared a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Despite the concerns of their aides, they came close to achieving agreement on this most important of issues. The sticking point was that President Reagan saw his Strategic Defense Initiative (missile defenses) as being essential to the plan, and Gorbachev couldn’t accept this (even though Reagan promised to share the US missile defense system with the then Soviet Union). Gorbachev wanted missile defense development to be restricted to the laboratory for ten years. Reagan couldn’t accept this.
The two leaders came heartbreakingly close to ending the era of nuclear weapons, but in the end they couldn’t achieve their mutual goal. As a result, nuclear weapons have proliferated and remain a danger to all humanity. Today, we face the threat of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons, and wreaking massive destruction on the cities of powerful nations. There can be no doubt that had Reagan and Gorbachev succeeded, the US and the world would be much safer, and these men would be remembered above all else for this achievement.

May President Reagan rest in peace: our task of peace-making remains.

Ronald Reagan Roundtable: The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.

(Photo credit: Ames Historical Society.)

In 1982, First Lady Nancy Reagan visited my junior high school in Ames, Iowa in order to promote youth drug prevention (as part of the“Just Say No” campaign). My memory of that day is vivid. I was standing at the back of the cafeteria which was emptied of its usual lunch tables. The cafeteria was filled with a crowd that spilled out onto what approximated a “hallway,” given the largely open-plan nature of that ’70s era building. Our classrooms didn’t have a full four walls. They had moveable room dividers and no doors and you might be able to hear the class next door. Groovy, man. Except no ’80s preteen that I knew of would use the word groovy. The ’70s were to be firmly pop-culture-repudiated. I remember the First Lady standing on a stage and surrounded by the white hot glare of television lights. How eye-wateringly bright the lights were! And how smooth – almost translucent and pearly – her skin was! Dainty. Controlled. Petite. It was my first real-life encounter with the soft rich textures of glamor.

After the First Lady’s talk, while in conversation with someone or other, I remember saying that, “I would NOT shake the President’s hand” if I met him in person. The young man speaking to me was incredulous. “You wouldn’t shake the President’s hand?”

I can’t remember now why I was so adamant. I wasn’t political as a teen and my hard-working immigrant parents rarely mentioned politics at home. By what form of cultural osmosis had I absorbed the idea that President Reagan was a bad and terrible man? By the osmosis of growing up in a college town surrounded by the children of faculty and life-long Story County Democrats. If you click on the Ames Historical Society link above, you will find an Ames Tribune photograph of a demonstration against President Reagan’s policies held during the First Lady’s visit. “Cheese for the POOR and champaigne for the RICH” reads one sign.

In the college town environments of my youth and early adulthood, Republicans were universally understood to be cold-hearted stupid warmongers. There was no, “I don’t like his policies but I like him personally” stuff. By what process of misremembering and selective editing have we smoothed over the roughest edges of that era, the nasty snide anti-Reagan jokes, the huge anti-Reagan missile protests in Europe, the near universal disdain of the man and the movement among intellectuals? A certain percentage of said intellectuals admired their own personal starry-eyed vision of the Soviet Union and that’s the truth.

You want to know how bad the disdain was in some corners of our society? When President Reagan was shot, my junior high classroom erupted into spontaneous applause. To the credit of the teacher, she became immediately and visibly distressed and told us to stop. She was shocked. I am shocked to remember it. We were nice kids growing up in a middle-class Midwestern college town, dreamily innocent in some ways, and primarily concerned with getting good grades and impressing that cute boy or girl. Yet, our first instinct at that moment was to clap. I remember being surprised at first, then smiling in confusion, then noting that the teacher was upset so that our reaction must be very wrong. How had we preteens thought such horrible behavior appropriate? What must we have heard, day in and day out, for that to be our response? How bizarre. How remarkable. How shameful.

Don’t let anyone talk you into thinking that the rough-and-tumble political world we live in now is something entirely new. If there is a crudeness to it, that is because our society has become more crude. Adult behavior and decorum is not what it once was. John Derbyshire of National Review has a point: our popular culture is filth. (By the way, thinking that doesn’t mean that you want the government to regulate anything and everything, okay?)

BONUS ’80s ANECDOTE: A girl in my Iowa high school was a lesbian and quite open about her sexuality (and this before the days of “Will and Grace”). Now and again, she got roughed up, I think. She wore her sandy blonde hair in a sort of 1950s dippity-do haircut, wore a voluminous keffiyeh wrapped around her neck, and sported wrap-around New Wave sunglasses. She spoke admiringly of the “brave freedom fighters, the brave Mujahideen!” fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Well, there you have it. The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.

Reagan Roundtable: Big Peace blog Posts NSDD-32, Reagan’s “Grand Strategy”

Big Peace blogger Sun Tzu has dug into the historical archives to post NSDD-32, the cornerstone document for coordinating the Reagan administration’s foreign, defense and intelligence policies ( Hat tip to Col. Dave).

“NSDD” stands for “National Security Decision Directive”. In essence, the document is an executive order issued through the National Security Council to executive branch agencies represented or under the supervision of the NSC. A NSDD (or “PDD” in Democratic administrations) carries the force of law and is often highly classified, frequently being used for presidential “findings” for approving covert operations, as well as to set national security policy.

NSDD-32: Ronald Reagan’s Secret Grand Strategy

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