Presumptive GOP Presidential nominee John McCain appeared yesterday at the meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Ronald Reagan appeared at the first CPAC meeting, in 1973, and at every one until his illness took him in 1991.
McCain, says Human Events editor Jed Babbin in his column yesterday, "is planning an all-out push at CPAC...McCain plans a very special introduction. According to my source, McCain has prepared a video featuring President Ronald Reagan to make the introduction." Will he go through with it? It would be the most brazen invocation of the Reagan mantle yet, in this campaign where "Reagan" and "Reaganism" have been invoked brazenly indeed.
Why not just create a computer-generated hologram of the old guy? It would make as much sense and have as much connection with today's candidates.
IN TRUTH, NO CANDIDATE, NO PRESIDENT, has had the special Reagan gift since 1988. What was that gift? What set Ronald Reagan apart? What allowed him to create and lead a movement that transformed American politics?
Ronald Reagan was an educator. He had come of age in the seemingly endless presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the other gifted presidential educator of the 20th century. Indeed, as a Democrat back then, Reagan admired the FDR style and gift, and put it into practice in a political effort of his own, serving first on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and then as president for five single-year terms.
He already had a lot going for him as a presenter to audiences. He was handsome, with an attractive, trained voice. He could think on the fly, having started his career as a radio announcer, making up "live" broadcasts of baseball games from sketchy teletype accounts. By the time he took SAG's helm, he had made 44 movies and innumerable training films for the Army during World War II. He knew how to play both to people and the camera.
At first in the Army and then at SAG, he found himself chafing against government regulations and clumsiness, and then pitched in conflict with a determined "fifth column" (as he called it in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947) of sub-rosa Communists determined to wield influence in the American film industry. As well, he led the union through a difficult adaptation to the emergence of television.
By 1952, Ronald Reagan had already acquired more leadership and communications skills than any current presidential candidate. (Interestingly, only Mike Huckabee's career compares.)
IN 1954, RONALD REAGAN STARTED a grueling graduate course in speechmaking, a course with a specific aim in mind, a course that polished his skill as a public educator to razor sharpness.
Scroll back to 1951. In the account of the Museum of TV Archives, the story is told of how the General Electric Corporation, dissatisfied with its corporate advertising and image creation,
transferred television production to the Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO) advertising agency, under whose direction the General Electric Theater debuted 1 February 1953 as an 'all-company project' sponsored by GE's Department of Public Relations Services.
The addition of Ronald Reagan as program host commencing the third season 26 September 1954 reflected GE's decision to pursue a campaign of continuous, consistent company voice advertising" -- what is also called "identity advertising."
...The first of many promotional tours orchestrated by BBDO and the GE Department of Public Relations Services sent Reagan to twelve GE plant cities in November 1954 to promote the program idea, further his identity as spokesman, and become familiar with company people and products. By the time General Electric Theater concluded its eight-year run in 1962, Reagan claimed to have visited GE's 135 research and manufacturing facilities, and met some 250,000 individuals. In later years, Reagan's biographers would look back upon the tour and the platform it provided for the future President of the United States to sharpen his already considerable skill as a communicator.
It was a different America back then, as most memorably chronicled in 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Gelernter (Harper Perennial, 1996). America's businesses and churches and universities represented a clear institutional authority, a confident identity. When General Electric aimed to create a corporate image, the company did so in an American tradition, guided most especially by GE executive Lemuel Boulware, described by a Heritage Foundation listing as "a free-market fundamentalist and skilled political operative."
(That Heritage Foundation program listing, by the way, promotes a discussion of an entire book, The Education of Ronald Reagan, by Thomas W. Evans, Columbia University Press, 2006, which supports the idea of Ronald Reagan as an educator.)
Newsmax.com's Left Coast Report, describing this time in Reagan's career, says he often made as many as a dozen speeches in a day. For eight years. On "the mashed potato circuit," at company gatherings. As host of one of the country's most popular TV shows, GE Theater. In front of audiences large and small, guided by one of the great advertising agencies in the America, supported by good, professional writers, yet having to work out his own rhythms and themes, developing applause lines and rejoinders, finding out what worked and what didn't.
And patiently, ultimately, saying the same thing over and over again, the mark of an educator.
AT THE TALL SHIPS REGATTA in New York in 1986, Ronald Reagan made the welcoming speech from the Statue of Liberty. "He has hit the American sweet spot," said NBC's Jane Pauley, reporting on the event. He was our national MC, and he reveled in it. Like most things that look easy, it had taken long, hard practice.
But Ronald Reagan was far more than a practiced technician. He had something to say. By the end of his stint with GE, in 1962, he had developed a number of themes, themes he continued to propound through the rest of his public life.
In 1964, Reagan made what has come to be known as The Speech, a special television presentation of about 4,000 words in support of the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. The major themes are all there:
Government takes too much: "No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income. Today, 37 cents of every dollar earned in this country is the tax collector's share, and yet our government continues to spend $17 million a day more than the government takes in."
America owes it all to freedom: "If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man."
A government that has the power to gives has the power to take away: "The Founding Fathers...knew that governments don't control things. A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose."
Welfare creates more welfare: "Well, now, if government planning and welfare had the answer and they've had almost 30 years of it, shouldn't we expect government to almost read the score to us once in a while? Shouldn't they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help? The reduction in the need for public housing? But the reverse is true. Each year the need grows greater, the program grows greater."
Government is the problem: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth."
Confront tyranny in the world: "We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, 'Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters.'"
CONTRAST REAGAN WITH GEORGE W. BUSH and you see the difference immediately, and not only in the obvious contrast of Reagan's verbal fluency with Bush's legendary clumsiness. Bush has in fact delivered some magnificent speeches of telling consequence, notably his address to the United States Military Academy in July of 2002, where he announced the change in American foreign policy that embraced preemption of threats, not just proportional response.
Imagine President Reagan having had to implement such a policy change. He would have introduced it to the public and reinforced it with speech after speech. He would have been prepared to elucidate it and defend it in any venue, and he would have done so -- preemptively, one might say. By contrast, President Bush made his point once -- and then, outside of using the same few phrases over and over again in contentious press conferences, never -- it seemed -- said it again. He said it once and expected it to work. It doesn't work that way.
"The Teflon President," the press used to call Ronald Reagan. Why? Because Reagan used to talk to the American people. He talked all the time. He made his key points over and over again, patiently, like a teacher. He did not make one good speech and then wonder why nobody followed him. People saw him and heard him over and over again. He was near impervious to spin and propaganda.
"Tell me the old, old story," says the hymn. Ronald Reagan told us the old, old story, over and over again, with a religious intensity and the patience of preacher. He had put in the time and effort to make himself an effective teacher. Most important, he taught what he believed. And what he believed was true.
Jed Babbin's source thinks John McCain's use of a Ronald Reagan video at CPAC will backfire. By now, we'll know if McCain actually had the gall to do it.