Commentary: Lessons from Reagan
for Washington Times
I won a nickname, 'the Great Communicator.' But I never thought
it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was
the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great
— Ronald Reagan in his Farewell Address, Jan. 11, 1989.
The Reagan presidency is now widely regarded as the most successful
of the past half-century. How did Reagan manage to be so much more
successful than most of his predecessors or followers? Many of the
answers can be found in a new book, "Ronald Reagan," (Westview,
306 pages) by Peter Wallison.
As general counsel of the Treasury in the first Reagan administration,
and then as the president's counsel during the Iran-Contra affair,
Peter Wallison was able to observe President Reagan's strengths and
Mr. Wallison is a superb writer with the knack of making White House
policy and power struggles as gripping as the best who-done-it.
Mr. Reagan was always underestimated by his opponents, and often even
his friends. The old "Saturday Night Live" parody of Mr.
Reagan where he appeared to be the bumbling, kindly old uncle to the
outside world while, in reality, being the dynamic take-charge executive,
was much closer to the truth than most people ever knew.
How could a man of supposedly limited knowledge and limited intelligence
accomplish so much? How did he get elected and reelected governor
of our largest state? How did he get elected and reelected president
of the United States? How did he preside over a time of unprecedented
prosperity, the winning of the Cold War, and the demise of communism
"Well, maybe he was a lot smarter than most people thought,"
former Secretary of State George Shultz has said.
Ronald Reagan, like Margaret Thatcher, was a conviction politician,
someone who actually believed in something, unlike the typical politician
with his finger in the wind. As Mr. Wallison explains: "Reagan's
faith in ideas may be unique among modern American presidents. He
does not appear to have sought the presidency for its own sake, or
for its trappings, or even as the culmination of a lifelong goal.
Instead, he sought the presidency to implement a set of firmly held
ideas about government's proper role . Ironically, in the sense he
believed that ideas were more important than individuals or power
relationships, Ronald Reagan — no matter how it may gall those who
have scorned the quality of his intelligence and called him an actor
or a lightweight — was an intellectual."
Mr. Reagan was the only modern president who researched and wrote
by himself more than a thousand commentaries of the public issues
of the day. He was thought to be lazy and uninterested in policy yet,
in fact, he was a voracious reader of books and policy papers. Of
the 670 essays written in his own hand between 1975 and 1979, 27 percent
were on foreign and defense policy, 25 percent on economics, 15 percent
on government and individual liberty, and 10 percent on energy and
Mr. Wallison explains how Mr. Reagan's management style of selecting
good people, setting broad policy goals, and then delegating the authority
and responsibility to get the task done, resulted in great economic
and foreign policy successes. The weakness of the Reagan management
system was that, because of the delegation of power, people down the
line with poor judgment could make serious mistakes, as in Iran-Contra.
Mr. Wallison was one of those charged with cleaning up the mess and,
in fascinating detail, he explains how it happened, and how the president
and his top advisers were eventually cleared of wrongdoing but, sadly,
how reputations of good people were destroyed in the process.
Mr. Wallison provides detailed evidence to support those who believe
that the press is often irresponsible and hostile to conservatives.
He describes specific cases of reporters who promised good press coverage
to those who leaked unflattering stories, and then unfairly pilloried
some who refused to cooperate.
In the case of Iran-Contra, the investigations ultimately showed that
the "arms sales were at most a failed and perhaps mistaken policy.
There was no cover-up involving the presidentfl .Whether there were
any clear and established violations of the laws covering the arms
sales has never been established, and there were no prosecutions for
these matters." Yet the coverage of what turned out to be a noncrime
was clearly excessive.
Mr. Wallison counted 555 Iran-Contra stories in The Washington Post,
and 509 stories in the New York Times in the three months between
November 1986 and January 1987. In describing the successful but unfair
attempt to "get" White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, Mr.
Wallison writes: "The fact is they wanted to get him, and they
were going to do it no matter who spoke on his behalf. Washington
is a very mean town when some formerly powerful person, already in
disfavor, is down. It's like dogs or wolves turning on the deposed
leader of the pack to finish him off." Sound familiar, Sen. Lott?
Those now in the administration ought to keep the Wallison book on
their desks as both a reference and reminder of how to make things
work and how to avoid mistakes. As Mr. Wallison notes: "In another
age, the press might have been interested in publishing and writing
about the great issues raised by Reagan's ideas, and the great debate
about the role of government that these ideas provoked. But in an
age when the greatest rewards in journalism seemed to go to those
who could produce the most sensational stories this was not to be.
Nevertheless, because of Reagan's persistence and conviction, and
willingness to pursue his case relentlessly, day after day, during
his eight years in office, some of his message got through. a recognition
in the United States and around the world that the way to achieve
growth and prosperity was through freeing the market from excessive
Richard W. Rahn is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and
an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.