Ronald Reagan was known as “The Great Communicator.” What isn’t well known is just how hard he worked to earn that title. Over the course of his career he invented a unique system to prepare, edit, and deliver speeches.
One of his secrets was a stack of 4 x 6 inch note cards that he compiled over the span of four decades. Consisting of quotes, economic statistics, jokes, and anecdotes, they became the core of Ronald Reagan’s traveling research files.
An annotated selection of those cards has just been published as a book. The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is edited by historian Douglas Brinkley, and the book’s release is being accompanied by a display of some of the note cards at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
The story of the cards began in the 1950s when Reagan would travel the country giving speeches to groups of General Electric employees. GE was the sponsor of the weekly TV show Reagan hosted from 1954 to 1962. “When Reagan read something he liked, he wrote it down. If someone told him a good joke, he wrote it down,” says Brinkley. “These cards are the tools of his trade. He can take any speech and insert some of these zingers and one-liners. Let’s say he’s speaking to a Kiwanis Club. He knew what to put in. If he was talking to a group of firemen, he had a joke about putting out a fire. If you’re really looking for the hand of a president, and how his mind is working, all of these note cards together, in a way, give you the magic of Ronald Reagan.”
The cards would feature between five and 10 items and would be written on both sides in Reagan’s inimitable shorthand. He compiled hundreds of them over the course of his career. Some were lost or given away as souvenirs, but 91 were recently discovered at the Reagan Library, stored in boxes that contained the contents of Reagan’s desk at his Los Angeles office on the day he died in June 2004.
“It rivals the Reagan diaries themselves,” John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Foundation, says of the note cards that were discovered. “It was like finding buried treasure; his speechwriters and aides have been talking about these cards for a long time. Now we have them.”
Indeed, Martin Anderson, Reagan’s former domestic policy adviser, says that Reagan’s system did wonders for his ability to give speeches. Reagan was able to approach a lectern with no sign anywhere of a prepared speech. Only those seated on the stage behind him could see his left hand drop into his suitcoat pocket and pull out a neat, small packet of cards and slip off the elastic band with his right hand as he set the cards down. And as for helping him in preparing the speech material, “his system was unrivaled,” Anderson remembers. “Before the speech Reagan would pore over the packs of cards, then pluck a few cards from one pack, a few from another, and combine them. In a matter of minutes, he would create an entirely new speech. The system was as flexible as a smooth gold chain.”
Indeed, it proved so effective he carried it into the White House. While he was president he would routinely hand them to his speechwriters to be incorporated into his major addresses.
As one looks at the yellowing speech cards, one can see Reagan was always careful to include the documentation and source at the top. In his shorthand, you can see him quoting Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free in a state of civilizations, it expects what never was & what never will be.” Reagan also kept an extensive file on Communism and the evidence of its evil. One card quotes Lenin thus: “As long as capitalism & socialism exist, we cannot live in peace. Socialists without ceasing to be socialists cannot oppose any kind of war.”
No such care in sourcing was needed for the time-tested jokes: “Those congressmen who worry about being bugged by the FBI—you’d think they’d be glad someone was listening to them.”
WHILE REAGAN was governor, I will never forget his taking time out of his schedule after a television taping to show me—a 15-year-old high school student—how he could instantly arrange his packs of anecdote-filled index cards into a speech tailor-made for almost any audience. I still use a variation of Reagan’s system to construct my own speeches.
Like a previous book, Reagan in His Own Hand, which unearthed and published original scripts of Reagan radio broadcasts, the note cards make a strong case that Reagan was, in the words of Michael Barone, “a voracious reader, a persuasive logician and a graceful writer who incorporated the thoughts of others to develop his own thinking.”
But Reagan was always very modest about his own accomplishments. As governor and president, he famously kept a sign on his desk that read, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Now with the discovery of his note cards, we can better appreciate just how hard Reagan himself labored to be clear and convincing—and, yes, sometimes funny—to his many audiences.