I have a distinct, early childhood memory of watching Ronald Reagan on TV. I remember liking him a lot. Maybe political inclinations really can emerge at age three, or maybe it was just a fluke (Granted, I also recall ripping out bits of my parents’ gold shag carpet, and eating green bell peppers for the first time.).
However, the political spectrum was definitely altered by our 40th President; accordingly, D’Souza writes one of his longest, most detailed letters about President Reagan.
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D’Souza is a bit of an expert here; he wrote a Reagan biography, and served in the White House under President Reagan. Modestly, he credits circumstance, not talent, for this appointment:
We were able to get these jobs because Reagan didn’t want to hire the old guys… Reagan figured, “Yes, they have experience, but they have experience in screwing up.” At the age of twenty-six, I was appointed senior domestic policy analyst in the White House. (Page 67)
He collected so many stories from those years. An embarrassing anecdote about how utterly non-political his own parents were. A description of the endlessly fascinating people who filled the White House hallways. Thus, D’Souza sits down to tell us what most of our generation doesn’t know about Reagan.
Reagan Seemed Ordinary
D’Souza explains that few people expected Reagan to be the powerful leader that hindsight shows he was. He wasn’t raised in a political family, and he read Reader’s Digest, not Thucydides. (65)
He was a C student at Eureka College. He spent most of his career as a movie actor. He was not a scholar or an intellectual. He had no foreign policy experience when he was first elected president. He put in a short day at the office, and allegedly took naps. (64)
Now remembered for his wit and charm, Reagan was then perceived as cavalier, even careless. But, what masqueraded as casual joke-cracking was often tactical brilliance. Reagan defused many situations with the humorous soundbites that generously pepper this letter; some reveal his personality, and others are just tactically brilliant.
Really, you must read this chapter – if only for the Reagan quotes.
Reagan Was Disliked
This was news to me. Today, references to Reagan are often admiring, if not worshipful. “Could this be the next Reagan?” is a litmus test for candidates, and even elected presidents; Reagan has become a human yardstick for modern conservatism.
This is in stark contrast to the 1980’s, when liberals treated Reagan with loathing and contempt. For instance, Eric Alterman of the Nation described Reagan as a “pathological liar” and an “unbelievably moron” with a “heart of darkness” that showed a “fondness for genocidal murders. (68)
Even among conservatives, Reagan was given little credit for the positive economic and political shifts in the late 1980’s. But, D’Souza argues that history shows Reagan’s choices to be incredibly responsible. He also notes that those who worked for Reagan glimpsed this possibility much earlier.
… we also saw that, beneath that jocular exterior, Reagan was a determined man who was making some big and important claims. Indeed, he was taking on the big idea of the twentieth century… (66)
Reagan Won the Cold War, AND…
D’Souza explains thoroughly why the Cold War victory was, in fact, elicited by Reagan. But, he also details Reagan’s effectiveness in stimulating the economy and growing new business domestically.
If you’re a History, Economics, or Political Science major, you’ll want to read this section with pencil in hand. D’Souza boils down several semesters’ worth of reading into a concentrated argument against the leftist claim that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable.
But, anyone can glean from the next section where, in three pages, D’Souza quantifies why Reagan’s presidency was so successful – not a bad list to have in our minds during an election year.
Reagan Didn’t Reconsider His Plans
He had a Euclidean certainty about what he believed and where he wanted to take the country… he was a man whose convictions were not open to change. (69)
For those who haven’t worked in politics, D’Souza describes why even sincere politicians are often swayed from their intended agendas.
You are immediately surrounded by highly competent and experienced people who tell you, “Sorry, Mr. President, but you simply cannot do that. The Congress will never go for it. There is opposition within your own party. The Supreme Court is sure to strike it down. The General Accounting Office has serious reservations. What are we going to tell the American Association of Retired Peoples? And so on. (70)
But, Reagan maintained an unrelenting focus, which enabled aggressive pursuit of his goals.
Reagan Prioritized Only a Few Things
Reagan instinctively understood that the president… can change the world in only two or three ways. (70)
And so, Reagan didn’t attempt to improve every arena; he focused on select battles. Even conservatives were sometimes bewildered at his inaction. But, he won the battles he fought.
… in the world of practical politics, leaders have to make hard choices about what is feasible at any given time. (76)
Reagan Ignored Criticism
… Reagan was successful because didn’t care what the elite culture said about him. (72)
This might be the most relevant line for us. Yes, be open while developing your ideals, your convictions, and your goals. Be teachable. Study and research all sides of the issues that make you pound your desk in frustration.
But, once you set out to do something, don’t let the heckling elicit self-doubt. If Reagan had, he’d likely be someone who now, three decades later, mostly just blended into his own history.
I truly hope you’ll read this chapter. It will make you chuckle, make you think, maybe even convince you to apply for that White House Internship.
Especially if we ever do elect another Reagan.
Next week, we’ll discuss Chapters 9-10!