Men like Ronald Reagan are a rarity.
Liberal historian John Patrick Diggins rated the Gipper as one of our four greatest presidents because, like Washington, Lincoln and FDR, Reagan saved or freed many, many people. Thus, just as one must be cautious in making comparisons, this also explains why everybody wants to make comparisons.
Donald Trump is not the first person who comes to mind when conservatives think of the next Ronald Reagan. And the two are of course quite different. So I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is Reagan incarnate, because he is not.
But while Trump is dismissed out-of-hand by some on the right, he and Ronald Reagan actually have more in common than many of today’s Republican analysts may want to admit. Whether one focuses on the way they reframe the debate, their outsider status or their qualities as a leader, Trump echoes Reagan in some significant ways.
To say that Reagan never got mad or made fun of his opponents is ridiculous. Campaigning in 1980, Reagan accidentally bumped his head on the door to his campaign bus. Mindful of Jerry Ford’s famous pratfalls, he quipped, “I know I can be president now.” Reporters roared.
Once, mad about the fall of Spiro Agnew, he angrily threw a set of keys he was holding right into aide Mike Deaver’s chest. Lyn Nofziger said there was the real Reagan anger and the “for effect” Reagan anger. When he broke a pencil, that was for effect. When he threw his papers or threw down his glasses, that was the real Reagan anger.
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More important than the occasional flashes of anger was the way in which Reagan conducted politics to make his point, or to make people agree he was right. On many occasions, the American people started out holding one position, only to be convinced by Reagan that he was right and had a better idea.
He didn’t often do it by hitting them over the head, but he could be compelling. Who can forget his famous refrain about the Panama Canal Treaties, “We built it! We paid for it! It’s ours! And we’re gonna keep it!”
The Gipper ran outside the system, outside the status quo, as everybody in the Establishment supported the treaties.
Reagan campaigned against the treaties in 1976 and 1977, and while Americans initially supported them, by the time he was done making his case they were overwhelmingly against them. On tax cuts, military superiority over the Soviets and many other issues, the American people initially opposed, and then supported, the Reagan position once they heard him make his case.
The Gipper ran outside the system, outside the status quo, as everybody in the Establishment supported the Treaties.
Reagan was a once-in-a-generation political leader. But he was not a politician; at least he didn’t think of himself that way.
He did call himself a “citizen-politician” and to demonstrate his populist sensibilities, he held “citizens’ press conferences,” in which Americans could ask him whatever questions they wanted. The events had been honed and sharpened while he was governor of California and he shone in these forums.
A key element of the Reagan coalition was the ethnic, blue collar, urban Catholic voter who later became known as the “Reagan Democrat.” A compelling case can be made that without the crossover support by Reagan Democrats, his 1976 primary loss against Gerald Ford would not have been as close and his nomination would have been more difficult in 1980.
While other candidates talked like campaign managers, Reagan talked like a leader.
There was a reason that the Karl Roves and Bushes opposed Reagan. He was an intellectual populist conservative, a distillation of Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater who didn’t care as much about Republicanism as they did about American conservatism.
Indeed, the Washington Post assembled a focus group of Democratic voters and Republican voters and discovered that Reagan’s TV commercials were more popular with the Democrats than the Republicans gathered.
He was always good at reframing the debate. He almost never accepted a premise he didn’t like. People would say, “Soviet hegemony” and he’d say, “Tear down this wall.” People would say, “Church and state” and he’d retort that the intent of the Framers was to leave religion alone. People would say, “Scarcity and sacrifice” and he’d say, “Let’s grow the pie so everybody can prosper.”
While other candidates talked like campaign managers, Reagan talked like a leader. To Reagan, Poles were more important than polls. It was once said the difference between Carter and Reagan in 1980 was that if you asked Jimmy Carter what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a watch and if you asked Reagan what time it was, he’d tell you it’s time to get this country moving again, evocative of JFK and FDR.
Reagan missed a few and the elites came down with the vapors, but the American people knew better.
There’s even the hair. Reporters obsess about Trump’s hair but people forget they also were fixated with Reagan’s, convinced he dyed it. They went so far as to obtain cuttings of the Gipper’s hair from Drucker’s Barber Shop in Beverly Hills where Reagan had gotten his hair cut weekly for forty years. They took these cuttings to a pharmacist, but were disappointed to learn that Reagan did not dye his hair.
In 1979, Tom Brokaw conducted an interview in which he tried to trip up Reagan on the names of foreign leaders. Reagan missed a few and the elites came down with the vapors, but the American people knew better.
Leaders talk like leaders. It’s not important they know the names of obscure military and political figures. They can hire people to do so. Obscure radio talk show hosts can memorize that stuff. Reagan attracted people who were ethical and bright and curious about important things because he was ethical and bright and curious about important things. Leaders, in short, lead.
Reagan understood this better than any political leader of his era.
Craig Shirley is the author of several Reagan biographies. His new book, “Last Act: The Final Years and Enduring Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” is due out in October.