True Reagan: His Beliefs Were His Arsenal, and Words His Weapons

Excerpted from TRUE REAGAN: What Made Ronald Reagan Great and Why it Matters. (Copyright 2016) Used with permission from Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


On September 1, 1983, two years into his first term as President, while Reagan was vacationing at his beloved Santa Barbara, California, ranch, the Soviet Union decided to awaken a drowsy world with its terrorist downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The Boeing 747 was a passenger jet flying from New York to Seoul, South Korea, carrying one member of the United States Congress and 268 other passengers and crew members from various countries. After stopping in Anchorage, Alaska, for refueling and after a change of routing, the plane mistakenly veered into Soviet airspace and, after a short volley of radio communication, was shot down by a Russian fighter pilot over the Sea of Japan. This jarring and deliberate act on the part of the Soviets came on the heels of Reagan's now iconic, but fiercely controversial at the time, "Evil Empire" speech. That speech had been delivered a few months before in Orlando, Florida, on March 8, and it was the perfect oration to presage and frame this incident. The Soviets had now handed irrefutable evidence to Reagan and the rest of the world that they were in fact an evil empire. This incident helped to verify the charge in Reagan's speech.

Mike Deaver, his longtime closest aide and friend, related to me afterward that he pressed an unhappy Reagan into an early retreat from his wood splitting and brush gathering at his small adobe-style ranch house high in the picturesque Santa Ynez Mountains, back to the grave and serious dark-paneled and windowless White House Situation Room -- located in a bunker in the West Wing basement. Once there Reagan, in surprising opposition to the impatience of his advisors, was not quick to approve any orders for immediate and specific retaliatory action. Reagan typically took the long view of history while making short-term policy decisions. He frustrated the assembled officials -- who were urging decisive and immediate action by the American leader -- by suggesting a better course was to wait and assess how the rest of the world recorded and responded to this violent act and to then determine the retribution, if any, from other quarters before he took any bold action himself. The trigger-happy hawk, as he was regarded by some, took his own turn onto a course of using other countries and multilateral voices around the world to convey his own shock and alarm -- but not for long.

He was strategic in taking this measure of global response, because he saw this deliberate act of terror as an opening to not just condemn this specific action but to link it to the broader evil of communism. He used his political capital to take another whack at what he had characterized as an evil system and make a worldwide school-room lesson from it. He preferred to look at this incident in the context of his long-term plan to defeat communism -- or, better said, let it defeat itself, with some help from him, his government, and a small group of other world and religious leaders.

But the world did not have to wait long to hear from him about this incident, nor did he parse his words when he spoke directly to the nation for sixteen dramatic minutes from the Oval Office. In his remarks he drew a vivid picture of the recklessness and immorality of this shocking act. Reagan had felt that way about what the Soviets did from the moment his national security advisor reported it to him. He waited, though, for the right moment to respond, when other leaders were mostly done speaking, to launch his verbal salvo of disgust. There was no disguising how he felt when he went before the cameras, in the Oval Office, to sum up what he thought.

He appeared sober and concerned. This was not a watered-down, rambling statement. His words were like heat-seeking, confrontational missiles. His words, but more his beliefs, locked onto and hit the target. The verbal strikes were specific and unequivocal. He included a substantial list of actions he was taking and actions he was asking the United Nations and allies the world over to initiate as a result of the downing of KAL 007. His presentation to the American people on September 5 reflected his view that standards of human behavior had been broken, standards that he supported unwaveringly. He also cleverly played the tape of the pilots in the Soviet attack plane, which showed they had clearly executed a deliberate act while describing it in detail to an alarmed ground crew.

It was critical that Reagan played that tape in the wake of continual Soviet denial of their complicity in the tragic downing. Again, he was attempting to let an evil system destroy itself by dramatically unmasking and exposing it in plain sight to the world. He was betting on widespread moral repudiation from a moral audience. He let the Soviet downing be prosecuted in the court of global public opinion. Importantly, Reagan believed in empowering his constituency through his oratory, because he respected them. He was a uniter. He attempted in every talk to bring Americans together to project a position of strength to the world. He knew he needed more than the power of his words to win his way in the theatre of global opinion. He needed the American people behind him and with him.

To place this incident in a global context, which was typical of his strategy with most issues, Reagan said that night from the Oval Office in the following excerpts I have reordered to emphasize their importance:

"And make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against our- selves . . . This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations. . . .

"Let me state as plainly as I can: There was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did . . .

"But despite the savagery of their crime, the universal reaction against it, and the evidence of their complicity, the Soviets still refuse to tell the truth . . . Indeed, they've not even told their own people that a plane was shot down."

During his remarks he referred to the U.S. Congress with respect as "that distinguished body" and continued his bipartisan reach by quoting from former Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) and also from President John F. Kennedy. Finally, seeking to draw the listeners up close and to unite them, he ended this way:

"Let us have faith, in Abraham Lincoln's words, 'that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.' If we do, if we stand together and move forward with courage, then history will record that some good did come from this monstrous wrong that we will carry with us and remember for the rest of our lives."

Who was this President who had the uncommon ability to stake a position so boldly and with such conviction? Few people understood the man captured by the camera lens sitting behind his massive oak desk, but they could agree he did have the ability to engage an audience with his message.

Reagan has remained in death as he was in life: a uniquely compelling and extraordinarily gifted world leader on the outside, but with an enigmatic interior. His life -- that is, his personality -- was unsettling and incomprehensible to some biographers. His mostly quiet inner character seemed out of bounds for them. For most people, including even some who worked for him and had known him for years, he was just plain hard to figure out. It wasn't that he was unusually complicated; it was that he was usually uncomplicated. The trouble arose from the fact that he never really talked about himself, especially in ways that might have revealed what he was thinking. He did not lead a personally interpretative life -- at least as much as we know from hints about what he was thinking and the things he shared with me individually, in official meetings, and in what he said to his wife in my presence. He kept a mental distance, cordoned off from and frustrating his long-suffering official biographer, Edmund Morris, who threw up his hands in exasperation over a subject he described to journalist Lesley Stahl as "one of the strangest men who's ever lived. Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, 'You know, I could never really figure him out.'" This was despite Morris's having conducted thousands of hours of interviews and research that resulted in an equally strange eight-hundred- page book on the fortieth President.

My experience with Reagan and my interpretation of his character was decidedly different from that of Morris and some other well-meaning and scholarly writers. Because I had the responsibility for starting the domestic policy program most reflective of Reagan's personal values, he took an extraordinary amount of time to explain to me what those values were. Because I also traveled the world with the President and First Lady, had an opportunity to engage them at certain reflective points, and to ask him, especially, about his personal and sometimes unofficial views on various topics, his guarded and complicated persona seemed more plainly accessible to me.

Reagan rarely reflected publicly upon or discussed what was going on inside his discreet mind, and even today he is known not so much for who he was but rather by what he accomplished. And that was just the way he wanted it. The reason, however, that it is crucial to define the interior of the man is that this is where his principles originated -- from carefully adopted precepts, learned and acquired in early boyhood, adolescence, and college, then refined, tested, revised, and put to work over a lifetime. These principles informed and shaped the decisions he made as an American and a global leader that affected millions of people. To complete the picture of Reagan as a leader, we need to knit these two sides of the man together.

While some heads of state are measured solely by their actions, politics, or intellect, it was Reagan's personal character and particular belief systems that account for his success as President. He would have been a failure at political leadership without them. And yet, even with these character elements so critical to his success, little is still known about these rock-solid pillars of his thinking, to which he was so irresistibly committed. This inside look -- defining Reagan by his principles, and defining his principles by understanding his inner character -- is the type of Reagan assessment that has been largely missed, even by many who knew him and worked with him. Reagan himself was of little help to others who could have defined him. Even Mike Deaver, who knew him for thirty-five years, titled his book about Reagan A Different Drummer.

I will never forget the initial unveiling of the official White House portrait of the President -- a large oil painting. Sadly it had to be sent back to the artist, rejected because of its obvious unlikeness to the real Reagan. In fact the Reagan Library has a gallery of Reagan portraiture that attempted but often did not capture the accurate likeness of the President. Good portrait painting usually conveys something of the character of the subject in addition to an accurate or representational physical resemblance. Many artists have had a difficult time painting Reagan with success. He is as challenging to depict in physical reality as in metaphysical topography.

Now, for the first time, there is an entire generation for whom Reagan is only an archetypal historical figure or an icon. For them he is not recognizable through direct experience. Since the private Reagan was left largely unnarrated by him throughout his life and he was almost totally silent about it during his presidency, it is more difficult to grasp what he was really like. However, this quiet disposition provides indispensable clues to the interior principles he lived by and that directly affected his exterior actions. This is why I am so frequently asked: "What was Reagan really like?"

Like most public servants, Reagan left a trail of documented official evidence -- records that detail his actions as well as those that speak to his character; however, he did not fit the puzzle pieces of his character together, nor did he reveal, directly or interpretively, much about his private identity or his rationale for making decisions. He never painted a particularly discerning literary self-portrait, although he did write auto- biographically about the facts of his life--out of necessity, in campaign-styled volumes. He left it for us to attempt to create a more complete picture of the personal qualities that defined his character -- and these features, assembled together with his official record, result in a total picture of the man. Few leaders are ever one-dimensional -- Reagan included. However, what some historical figures accomplished in public life and left in the public record satisfies an appetite for biographical portraiture.

All leaders make decisions based on subjective views, opinions, values, education, personal experiences, and beliefs. Reagan was no exception. These beliefs directly formed, sup- ported, and gave energy to his acts as President. For Reagan, though, his faith in and everyday dependence on a Higher Power and his love of America were so merged and woven into his leadership and communication style that he could be better characterized as a political missionary, the son of a preacher, than a political head of government.

Reagan saw himself as an evangelist for the precepts and moral teachings in which he believed and by which he lived; however, he mostly communicated his beliefs by quoting the words of others -- words that he carefully and deliberately deployed in strategic ways for a political purpose. He would frequently repeat quotations from historic thinkers, patriots, or writers to make certain his audience understood the import of his message. Using this technique -- liberally quoting from grand, reliable, and universally accepted and renowned figures--resulted in more of a message delivered through him than actually by him. It was, however, decidedly effective, and it added power and import to his speeches -- to depend on other thinkers who might enjoy the broad support that history sometimes bestows. In this way he was also utilizing a trusted acting technique to become a reliable and believable character who employs the words of the screenwriter -- never or rarely his own. However, in the case of Reagan as President, he was using the words of others that happened to reflect his own views. But Reagan could never have been successful in selling his potent brand of politics if he had been just speaking words others thought or wrote for him. For him the words he spoke were direct extensions of his own beliefs.
This unique Reagan communications tool is observable in almost every speech and statement he gave while in office. In this example, in commemoration of Captive Nations Week in 1983, he said:

"Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.' This reaffirmed an eternal truth that Thomas Jefferson in 1776 wrote into our own Declaration of Independence. Another great thinker, Edmund Burke, observed simply that 'the cause of Freedom is the cause of God.' Some twenty-five centuries before, the prophet Isaiah admonished the world 'to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.'"


And again in announcing his own Bill of Economic Rights in 1987, Reagan said:

"Jefferson, in his first Inaugural, spoke for his countrymen when he said, 'A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This,' he said, 'is the sum of good government.' Well, that vision of America still guides our thinking, still represents our ideals."

Reagan lavishly used these quotations from others to rein- force a point of view, for dramatic effect, and in order to gain enough gravity to enable him to take the actions he thought were correct while in office. He used some of these famous quotations for political cover--shining by the borrowed light of those already mostly universally acclaimed.

I often hear people say, almost with a resigning sigh, "We always knew where Reagan stood on an issue and we liked that whether we agreed with him or not. He was not a moving target." Generally people see and respond well to stability and strength. They felt that way about Reagan because he usually explained where he stood on an issue -- in plain terms over and over again, deliberate repetition being the mark of an effective communicator. Reagan never vacillated and rarely reversed his views on broad basic principles. Typically he carefully explained his detailed rationale for taking action, almost to the point of boring his audience, in an effort to educate the listener and to build a base of support. This practice is in stark contrast to a majority of leaders who do not adequately explain their actions or rationale, perhaps because they don't really understand them themselves.

In an article published in a journal called the Strategist, professional communications consultant C. Peter Guiliano called Reagan "a master of clear, concise, credible communication." He went on to say that "Reagan was always certain about his purpose. He maintained a sure vision of America and what he wanted to accomplish. He kept his messages short and clear. His speeches were not laden with more facts and data than people could quickly absorb. If he had been a corporate CEO, his vision of what he wanted his company to achieve and how he wanted it to behave would have been clear."

Even Reagan's immediate predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, not especially long-suffering in defeat after just one term in the White House, said of Reagan, "[He] provided an inspirational voice to America when our people were searching for a clear message of hope and confidence . . . He had unshakable beliefs and was able to express them effectively, both in America and abroad."

While everyday men and women also praised Reagan for his communication skills, professional elocutionists, trainers of public speakers, and even his political opponents also hailed the fortieth President's ability to talk. My friend Merrie Spaeth, a former film actress who once worked for Bill Paley, the legendary President of CBS, and who is now, herself, a highly sought after professional communication and message trainer in Dallas, Texas, told me that Reagan "got it all right with- out appearing to try. He never labored over his words but spoke from conviction. He was measured but never unsure. His voice had a moderate, comfortable tone, not forced, that drew the listener in. This stood out from the typical politician who tends to speechify by yelling, possibly mimicking the worst type of circuit preacher or televangelist. His phrasing was pitch-perfect and you got the message on the first try, from listening to him. I use him as a role model every day in training business people and others."

The fortieth President of the United States set a high standard with his extraordinary ability to talk and be heard. He moved and motivated people through his communication and mainly because of his strongly held and heartfelt beliefs and his ability to deliver them verbally and nonverbally. Since his days in public office ended, other political leaders and public speakers have often sought to emulate Reagan's ability to inspire; however, most of them have failed. For aspirants to public service in either political party, Reagan has been a role model. Republicans, especially, want to stick close to him because he was a gigantic winner of political campaigns. Labels are often applied to Presidents, become embedded in history, and are perpetuated through generations as a short-hand reference tool. George Washington was "Father of a Nation." Abraham Lincoln was a "Liberator." FDR was a "New Dealer." Eisenhower was a "Soldier President." Reagan, whose first label was "Actor President," assumed "Great Communicator" and "Teflon President" as his labels during and after his two terms in the Oval Office.

The Great Communicator label was even more often used in reference to him in retirement. It was then that more of his own personal writings, including private letters and hundreds of handwritten speech drafts, were discovered -- almost accidentally -- by researchers at Stanford University. These documents have provided evidence that Reagan wrote hundreds of his own speeches and carefully constructed, tested, and validated his beliefs in words and public presentations. The ideas were his own. The writing was his own. Even his personal love letters to his wife, Nancy, were published -- revealing how the man felt and communicated within his marriage. This was far from the characterization of Reagan as personally unsympathetic and without feeling--a person who was merely mouthing the extraordinary words of brilliant speechwriters.

His own speech-writing and delivery began in a structured and formal way before and during his long tenure as a Screen Actors Guild board member and then as its President. It continued through his years as public spokesman for General Electric (GE) -- on what was called the "mashed potato" dinner circuit and at the GE factory gate -- as well as later in his two terms as governor of California and finally as the American President. He had a prominent hand in crafting and forming his speeches as well as editing them -- as so many speech drafts with his handwritten notes substantiate.

A Vantage Point from Which to Learn About His Character

When I joined the Reagan Administration and the President's staff in 1981, I knew almost nothing about the President and First Lady. I had read about them and watched them on television, but that was of little help when it came to working directly for them every day. I voted for Reagan -- of course -- and my wife and I were guests of the Reagan campaign at one of the formal 1980 presidential debates held in Cleveland, where we were living at the time. I had also not been introduced to the Reagans personally, or for that matter any of the Californians from their days in Sacramento and Los Angeles, who were much more knowledgeable about them and savvy about their habits and personalities.

While that lack of experience put me at a disadvantage in many ways, it also gave me an added measure of curiosity about my new clients and provided me with a dogged determination to figure them out -- if for no other reason than to keep my job and to be more effective in working for them in the White House. I started my Reagan education by listening carefully to the First Couple and watching intently -- and in time they revealed themselves to me, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes through focused probing on my part. Ultimately I was left to my own devices to piece together a better picture of who they were and where they were coming from in the decisions they made and how they lived. I did this initially from my post managing the President's favorite domestic policy program.

The Private Sector Initiatives (PSI) program, the government program on the domestic side closest to Reagan's heart, had been a part of his 1980 political platform and was also included in the Heritage Foundation's massive thousand-page playbook, Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration. I also learned later that Reagan had, through the years prior to coming to Washington, referred informally to the phrase private sector initiatives in speeches now available in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This was his own term for the fact that the private sector often provided better solutions for social problems than the government could by itself. Finally, after being elected President, Reagan had an opportunity to convert this idea into an actual program-- which I had the privilege of launching and managing for him.

Once situated in my White House office, I wrote a comprehensive plan and Presidential Decision Memo for the formal adoption of PSI. It was to include a small staff and a blue-ribbon Presidential Commission. We presented the plan to the President one weekend at Camp David; he wholeheartedly endorsed it and pledged his personal and direct everyday engagement. To underscore the importance of this program to the President, Jim Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Meese -- the three most powerful men in the White House at the time -- traveled with me on Marine One, the President's helicopter, up to the fabled Catoctin Mountain retreat to make the pitch to the President over lunch. To be clear, there were many more critically important initiatives being managed out of the West Wing and throughout Cabinet agencies, and with far greater urgency -- and yet this tiny program, by comparison to the others, bore the stamp of Reagan's personal character.

The goal of PSI was to stimulate the private sector, including business and philanthropic leaders, to find new and innovative ways to address public needs such as education, housing, and healthcare, more effectively than had been done by the government acting alone. This was a genuine Reagan priority, and he saw it as a key element in his domestic policy program. Coincidentally, and happily for me, it was also the focus of my career in philanthropy and business prior to joining the Administration. It was this program that helped to usher the term public-private partnerships into play more prominently in public policy, and through an executive order we were able to direct a small percentage of each Cabinet agency's discretionary budget to fostering these partnerships as a better way to spend public tax dollars and secure a better return on the investment of public funds.

My involvement with this program, so aligned with Reagan's personal and yet little-understood character, is what began to open a window for me on, and piqued my curiosity about, Reagan's belief system. How Reagan felt about PSI and what he discussed with me about this initiative helped solve for me some of the mystery about his character. It also added transparency to his controlled and inwardly quiet but outwardly talkative personality.

During the second year of Reagan's first term, I was asked by Mike Deaver to also assume an additional role of Chief of Staff to the First Lady. This was the first time in White House history that a Chief of Staff on the First Lady's team would also hold a senior post with the President. This worked well, because it helped to create a good working relationship between the West Wing and the East Wing, and it smoothed out what I learned had been troubled waters in earlier presidential administrations between the two staffs. It also worked especially well for this particular President and First Lady team, because of her keen interest in his schedule and official activities, and because the President's other advisors often wanted to solicit and hear her opinion on various issues. In this expanded role, I was a part of the President's senior staff and his Deputy Assistant, serving on the long-range scheduling team, the Theme for the Day team, and the pre-advance negotiating teams for foreign state visits; I was also a part of the early-morning senior staff meetings and briefings convened by the President's Chief of Staff. These duties included managing the official life of the First Lady, managing the East Wing staff, and traveling and working with both of the Reagans.

Among the things I learned about the First Couple and how they worked was that when they were a part of the film industry studio system, they had a staff to direct them, dress them, light them, photograph them, provide them with cue cards, scripts, and talking points, publicize them, and advance them. The studio system often provided an array of these types of people and services to support actors when they were working on a film--and this was at no financial cost to the actors personally; it was just the way films were made. That translated later into a White House staff that performed in similar roles. Ultimately I learned more about the similarities between Hollywood and Washington, DC, where the major players are politicians, not actors, and where there are entire industries to support them -- just as ubiquitous as those who worked on the back lots and in the production studios of the film industry.

Once I figured this out about Hollywood, Washington, and the Reagans, it was easier for me to feel comfortable with and accept the way they thought and worked. Their experience in the film industry also gave them a big advantage in knowing how to run the American presidency -- something Reagan's immediate predecessor lacked, which was a particular appreciation for the tools of staging the presidency. Later Bill Clinton himself followed the Reagan playbook for how to be an American President--almost to a tee. He employed Reagan's communication strategy effectively, and through his daily introduction of new programs and policy initiatives he dominated the news as Reagan had through his Theme for the Day strategy.

Clinton's self-professed role model was John F. Kennedy, and the Kennedys also had an ability to stage the presidency. This was one reason there were some similarities noted between the Kennedys and the Reagans. A mutual feeling of respect and interest was often shared between them, as I saw firsthand at several events and in other communications between them, some of which came personally to me.
I saw evidence of this relationship several times, such as during the planning for the anniversary commemoration of the Special Olympics Program, which the Reagans hosted for the Kennedy family on the South Lawn of the White House in 1985. I saw this friendship again during the President's visit to the McLean, Virginia, Kennedy home for a John F. Kennedy Presidential Library fund-raiser. There was an easy affability and understanding that came perhaps from some of the Holly- wood influence both families had shared, and also from a sense that both Administrations were about new platforms and ideas as well as a perception of the strength and exuberance of the American presidency that was a part of both families.

With an understanding and appreciation of the power of words and the images that accompany them, Reagan, like Kennedy and later Clinton, deployed them effectively and for targeted political purposes. President Lincoln himself, although he did not have television to convey his ideas and gave only one hundred speeches during his tenure, wanted--according to the Morgan Library in New York, which hosted a 2015 sesquicentennial appreciation of him--"words that appealed to reason, not mere emotion . . . [and] writing that was clear and cogent, and that, when spoken, was pleasing to the ear . . . Lincoln saw the power of rhythmic repetition . . . [and] had no appetite for grandiloquence and pretension." With his two powerful speeches, the one at Gettysburg and the other from his second inauguration, Lincoln joined with Reagan as a man also from humble beginnings. Both were born in the state of Illinois; both spent their early years memorizing the Bible and valued its contents, not only as truth but as a luminous and inspiring pattern for communicating. They shared a unique legacy and respect for language--its uses and its power.