SHANGHAI, China – Ronald Reagan came onto my beat a half-century ago, not as a candidate for office but as a visitor. I was working at the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph, my first newspaper job after leaving the Army. Reagan, then the host of the General Electric Theater, would come to Bloomington once a year to visit the local GE plant and then go up the road to Eureka, Ill., to speak to students at his alma mater, Eureka College.
Eureka was part of my beat, so I heard my first Reagan speeches in 1954 and 1955. The details have faded, but not the message. Reagan was there to tell these farm kids and small-town boys and girls that they too could accomplish any goals they set for themselves, because they had the good fortune to live in a country where freedom made everything possible.
He told them how unlikely it was that he, an average guy from a background just like theirs, could achieve prosperity and a good measure of fame in Hollywood – implying, “if I can make it, so can you.”
These were no more than the standard clichés of a thousand commencement talks, given by successful alumni to current classes. But coming from Reagan, they did not sound like boilerplate. Talking to students afterward, I could tell they had been moved – their sights lifted.
The reason that Reagan was persuasive, I came to understand, was that he had first persuaded himself of the truth of his utterances. Much later, when someone hung the title, “The Great Communicator,” on Reagan, I thought to myself, it should be “The Great Persuader.”
Almost everything he accomplished in politics and government – and he accomplished more than any other Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt – he did through his powers of persuasion.
In 1964, he convinced millions of Republicans that Barry Goldwater, though on his way to landslide defeat, had enunciated a vision of limited government that could some day lead their party to victory.
In 1980, after two successful terms as governor of California, Reagan provided that victory and persuaded a Democratic House of Representatives and a deeply skeptical Tip O’Neill to permit him to conduct his experiment with deep tax cuts and massive defense spending.
Against waves of “expert opinion,” he pursued his belief that the Soviet Union would crack under the pressure of an accelerated arms race, and he lived to see the Soviet empire crumble and a degree of freedom and democracy come to Russia itself. Even his most implausible challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” came to pass, because Reagan so fervently believed that freedom was the most powerful force on earth.
He was also able to persuade himself – and therefore, other people – of things that were palpably not true. In the Iran-contra affair, Reagan clearly believed, against all evidence, that he had not authorized trading arms for hostages. And he never could be persuaded that the huge deficits that accumulated on his watch were the result of his own policies.
In the summer of 1981, he phoned me at the Washington Post from his California ranch to register a polite complaint about a column arguing that the tax cuts he had just signed were unaffordable. I repeated my view; he insisted that all that was required was a little spending discipline in Congress. I said his own budget proposals showed little restraint on the domestic side and vast increases in defense. He went right back to his original contention – and I’m sure, believed what he was saying.
But Reagan was disarming. He once told Charlie McDowell, the Washington correspondent for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch that he should not be embarrassed by the discovery that an anecdote McDowell had told all over the country about a visit by Reagan to Lexington, Va., for the filming of “Brother Rat,” could not be true, because Reagan had done all his scenes for that movie in Hollywood. McDowell was chagrined to have created a myth about seeing Reagan at a local drugstore. But Reagan patted his shoulder and said, “You believed it because you wanted to believe it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time.”
That was Reagan. But because he could persuade almost anyone – starting with himself – of anything, changes that would otherwise have been impossible to imagine did happen. And the world is profoundly different because of him.