Anchor and managing editor for CBS Evening News for twenty-four years, Dan Rather is one of the best-known figures of modern American journalism. In a recent visit to Oxford, he offered some reflections on Ronald Reagan’s relationship with America in an address to a conference hosted by the
Rothermere American Institute on The United States in the 1980s: The Reagan Years. We are pleased to publish an excerpt from Rather’s lecture.
When I was going over the program for this conference, one of the titles that caught my eye was the question raised by Gil Troy of McGill University: ‘Toward a historiography of Reagan and the 1980s…why are we doing such a lousy job?’ As I think most of you probably know, I am not an historian. It is not for me to judge the quality of the historical work being done on Ronald Wilson Reagan, fortieth president of the United States of America. But if a ‘lousy job’ is being done in this area, it occurs to me that one reason may very well be that, though nearly two decades have passed since President Reagan’s second term ended, whatever dust gathered on the Reagan presidency has been given very little chance to settle.
Put another way: To engage many of the big
historical questions concerning Ronald Reagan’s legacy is to find oneself smack in the middle of the political debates that continue to transfix and, to varying degrees, divide America today, twenty years after the height of Reaganism.
There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that two decades is simply not all that long a time and perhaps provides an inadequate vantage point for gaining a great deal of historical perspective. But the most obvious manifestation of—and cause for—this situation is the degree to which the current President Bush has, consciously and avowedly, embraced the Reagan presidency as a model.
Some simplify this with the formula that George Herbert Walker Bush is George W. Bush’s biological father, but Ronald Reagan is his political father. But the implications go beyond symbolic questions of political patrimony to those of policy, where they resonate in debates ranging from those on tax policy to the wisdom or folly of deficit spending to approaches toward foreign policy.
If historians are having difficulty grappling with Reagan’s legacy, it may be because journalists have gone way over deadline in this first draft of history. That cannot be properly put to bed until the politicians and their spokesmen and, indeed, the American public have finished with the subject. As of this late date, they have not. It’s my opinion that they are not likely to for some time.
There may be considerably more consensus on the subject of Ronald Reagan, the man, and how that man occupied, inhabited, and indeed embodied the office of the presidency than there is about the policies he generated in that role. If the 20th century was the American century, then Ronald Reagan embodied its breadth and scope as well as any public figure America produced in that century.
Let’s look for a moment at Ronald Reagan in the context of his times, at least as the popular imagination has come to frame them in hindsight.
He was born and spent his early youth in Tampico, Illinois, a place that, even today, remains the quintessence of small-town, middle America (Population: 772). At a time when the iconic American young man was the collegiate football player, Reagan was a three-time varsity letterman at Eureka College. In the era we remember as ‘The Golden Age of Radio,’ Reagan was on the radio, as a sports announcer. In 1937, just in time for Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, Reagan took the screen test for Warner Brothers that led to his film career. While Franklin Roosevelt was President, Reagan considered himself an ardent New-Dealer; During World War II, Reagan served in the US Army’s Motion Picture Unit. When Washington, D.C. was consumed with the question of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, Reagan (then president of the Screen Actor’s Guild) testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the 1950s, Reagan resurrected his flagging acting career by becoming one of the first motion-picture actors to make the jump to television, just in time for ‘Television’s Golden Age.’ When the modern American conservative movement was born with the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, there was none other than Ronald Reagan beginning his own political career in earnest with what would later become known, simply, as ‘The Speech.’ At a time when the state of California was both ground zero for American foment in the 1960s and primary incubator of the American counterculture—there was Governor Reagan, at the forefront of the ‘Establishment’ opposition.
While I don’t mean to suggest that Reagan was some sort of real-life Zelig, it is remarkable to note the degree to which he was involved—to which he involved himself —in so many of the defining movements and events of his times. Not always blowing with the prevailing winds, not always at the very epicenter of things, but involved in a way few people are, over such a prolonged stretch of time. His was a significant and, to a large degree, emblematic American life, and was so well before he was elected president.
The well-worn title bestowed on Reagan as the ‘Great Communicator’ sometimes grates on his partisans, who see in it either an effort to damn by faint praise or a reluctance to credit the Reagan ideology—or both. But the fact remains that he was an extraordinary spokesman for the beliefs that he held and that his fellow Republicans and conservatives share still. And in a democratic republic, the ability of a leader to communicate his or her beliefs is no small thing. As president, Reagan always seemed to grasp that policy and politics need to be well-harnessed to the horse of persuasion.
We are so inundated with information, not to mention a self-conscious awareness of the political process, that speeches—if we ever hear more of them than a few ever-shorter sound-bites—seem inevitably to have lost a good deal of their power to truly move the public. In the Reagan years, however, the current period of great change in media was only just getting underway. This small bit of good timing combined well with professional gifts of communication to enable Reagan, as president, to convey externally the unique and large piece of the America psyche that resided within him. In this he succeeded to a remarkable degree, and in so doing was able to achieve much according to the terms he had laid out for himself and for his administration.
Among the articles marking Reagan’s passing last year was a perceptive piece in which Reagan biographer and Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon recast something that Walter Lippmann had once said of Charles de Gaulle: ‘The greatness of Reagan,’ Cannon wrote, ‘was not that he was in America, but that America was inside of him.’
At the time that Cannon wrote this, amid a sea of eulogies, it would have been easy to dismiss such a remark as a mere platitude. But that would have been a mistake, for I feel it gets to the very beating heart of why Reagan enjoyed and continues to enjoy such popularity among the American public: ‘America was inside of him.’
By the time Reagan was elected president, his understanding of his country and its major currents must have been innate, even if one discounts all his considerable rhetorical and oratorical skill. President Reagan did not really have to reach—except within himself—in order to connect with his fellow Americans.
Much was, is, and continues to be made of the fact that Reagan was an actor. But the celebrated Reagan traits of friendliness and warmth were not mere illusions of the television screen. If anything, he came across as friendlier and warmer in person.
I recall an interview I had with him while he was president, at the start of my own tenure as CBS News anchor. At one point in the interview, we took a break and one of his aides, Michael Deaver, approached me to do a bit of lobbying concerning an answer the president had given to one of my questions. Deaver hardly had the chance to speak, though, before the president walked over and said, ‘You know, this is something I should talk to Dan about myself’—and he said, in essence, ‘I’m a little uncomfortable with that answer…and certainly you will decide, but as I think about it I wasn’t at my best, and if you could see your way clear to give me another crack at the question or revisit the subject, I’d certainly appreciate it.’
Now, we journalists like to think of ourselves as hard-bitten types for whom such niceties do not make a difference. But the reality is that they often do. And by resisting any impulse towards imperiousness either by himself or his staff, by instead being so genuine and sincere in his approach, he did himself a service in his relations with the press in general and this reporter in particular.
To return to the subject of Ronald Reagan, onetime actor: I think one might look upon his actor’s training not as any kind of stand-in for substance and sincerity, but rather as a tool that Reagan had in his arsenal that helped him to project what was already inside of him. I’m sure, in the endless gantlet of personal appearances that the political professional must make—speeches, fundraisers, meet-and-greets, and on and on, the ability to appear ‘on’ even when he did not necessarily feel ‘on’ must have been a tremendous asset.
This last bit, though, is just guesswork. And without making any judgment on the policies that Reagan, as president, espoused or enacted, or their degree of consistency with his stated ideological positions, what we can say with some certainty is that Ronald Reagan knew how to personify the American spirit of his times, and reflect it back to an American public that generally liked what it saw. This ability served his presidency very well, in the public’s perception, and continues to do so.