What Ronald Reagan taught me about talking about politics and Trump

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By Robert Mann

Try holding these two thoughts: President Donald Trump is corrupt, unfit for the presidency and should be removed from office. And, yet, his impeachment will do nothing to solve the destructive partisan divide in this country and will, in fact, make it worse.

That divide didn’t start with Trump and it may not end with his departure. For several decades, leaders and voters in both parties have vilified each other in highly personal ways. The mutual distrust and disdain are toxic. Respected journalists, historians and political scientists worry about civil unrest if Trump is removed from office or defeated for reelection.

In this climate, people on both sides of the political divide have come to blows—sometimes literally. Friendships are cast aside over a political spat. Family relationships are poisoned. The next ten months, leading up to the 2020 presidential election, will be ugly and dangerous for our personal relationships.

I often wonder what degree of blame and responsibility average citizens like me have in the coming reckoning. And, as private citizens, what can my family, friends and neighbors do to heal our nation’s wounds? The answer, for me at least, is lots.

While there’s not much an individual citizen can do about the structural changes members of Congress and other national leaders should enact to improve our political climate, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to effect change. As with any social movement or reform, change usually starts at home.

As someone once said, “Most people want to change the world, but no one wants to help Mom do the dishes.” For years, “doing the dishes” is how I’ve described the small, incremental work needed on the local level—around the Thanksgiving table, in churches, civic clubs and elsewhere.Continue reading “What Ronald Reagan taught me about talking about politics and Trump”

The speech that launched Ronald Reagan political career

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By Robert Mann

Other than perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s February 1860 speech at New York’s Cooper Union, no speech was more important to the career of a future president than the one Ronald Reagan delivered on national television the night of Oct. 27, 1964.

Before he spoke for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, most Americans knew Reagan as a fading film star and the former host of TV’s “General Electric Theater.” When he finished speaking, millions of American realized they had just seen something new and powerful in American politics.

In Reagan, they heard the first rumblings of the conservative message that would influence American politics for the rest of the century. They also saw the messenger who would lead the conservative movement to the White House 16 years later.Screenshot 2019-11-23 08.22.24

Reagan had traveled the “mashed potato circuit” for years, serving up conservative red meat to small-town audiences, usually places where a General Electric plant was located. As GE’s TV host, and its goodwill ambassador, Reagan was a household name for his acting in and hosting the popular Sunday-night half-hour drama series that aired from 1954 to 1962.

Thousands in America’s heartland knew of Reagan’s skill in delivering the conservative message. While they had thrilled to his eloquent, patriotic themes, they also went away worried because of his warnings about the threat the Soviets posed to U.S. national security and the danger federal bureaucrats posed to American democracy.

However, until Reagan delivered his address on national television—a speech he had been refining for years—most Americans knew him only as an actor. His confident, eloquent delivery this night would prompt his audience to see him in a new light.

Here was a man who had outshone Goldwater—explaining and .defending conservatism in a way few had ever heard. Where the flinty Goldwater had forced his bitter medicine on the nation, Reagan had laced his dosage with sugar and spice. It was the same prescription, just far more palatable coming from the avuncular Reagan.Reagan speech screenshot

How Reagan came to this moment and what he made it of it is among the most fascinating and telling periods of his life and the turning point in his pre-presidential life. Before “The Speech,” there was Reagan the actor who occasionally gave political speeches. After “The Speech,” there was Reagan the political leader, who once was an actor.

This is the story of the speech that set Reagan on his path to the White House:

July 1964

Now that Goldwater was the nominee, Reagan was eager to play a larger role in his friend’s presidential campaign. He would attend the Republican convention as an alternate California delegate. He would applaud as his candidate embraced the extremist label in his acceptance speech. “I would remind you,” Goldwater said to wild, sustained applause, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Reagan would enlist completely in Goldwater’s fall campaign, so much so that he expected to chair Goldwater’s general election effort in California. That decision forced Reagan into a brief confrontation with Philip Davis, a prominent Southern California business executive and former state assemblyman, who also wanted the position. The two reached a compromise: Reagan and Davis would serve as co-chairmen for Citizens for Goldwater in California. Reagan described the arrangement: “While another cochairman managed day-to-day operations of the campaign, my job was to travel around the state speaking on behalf of Barry and to help him raise campaign funds.”cropped-fullsizeoutput_3a4f-2.jpeg

As he campaigned around California for Goldwater, Reagan usually offered little more than warmed-over versions of the speech he had delivered to audiences across the country for the past decade. To a Goldwater event at a high school in Santa Cruz in late September, Reagan repeated his shopworn lines about Communism. “We are at war with the most-evil enemy of all time—the Communists—and we are losing that war because most Americans don’t believe we are in it.” Audiences and local journalists, even if they knew they were hearing a well-worn speech, did not care. As the reporter covering the event wrote, “The handsome speaker, glancing only occasionally at his notes, held the audience spellbound.”Continue reading “The speech that launched Ronald Reagan political career”

The definitive story of Ronald Reagan’s political evolution

 

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This typically excellent, highly original work from Robert Mann will emerge as the standard interpretation of Reagan’s ideological evolution—and his development as a major political figure. Mann stresses both continuity in Reagan’s belief system and recognition of the pre-gubernatorial era’s importance. A must-read.Robert David Johnson, professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center and author of All the Way with LBJ: The 1964 Presidential Election


“With empathy and critical insight, Robert Mann guides us on a journey through Ronald Reagan’s personal and political awakening. Anyone who wishes to understand the roots of modern conservatism will profit from this engaging and deeply researched study of Reagan’s ideological evolution from New Deal liberal to right-wing warrior. Love or loathe him, this book will help you understand him.”Joshua M. Zeitz, author of Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House


About the Book

In the 1960s transitioning from acting to politics was rare. Ronald Reagan was not the first to do it, but he was the first to jump from the screen to the stump and on to credibility as a presidential contender. Reagan’s transformation from struggling liberal actor to influential conservative spokesman in five years—and then to the California governorship six years later—is a remarkable and compelling story.

In Becoming Ronald Reagan Robert Mann explores Reagan’s early life and his career during the 1950s and early 1960s: his growing desire for acclaim in high school and college, his political awakening as a young Hollywood actor, his ideological evolution in the 1950s as he traveled the country for General Electric, the refining of his political skills during this period, his growing aversion to big government, and his disdain for the totalitarian leaders in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. All these experiences and more shaped Reagan’s politics and influenced his career as an elected official.

Mann not only demonstrates how Reagan the actor became Reagan the political leader and how the liberal became a conservative, he also shows how the skills Reagan learned and the lessons he absorbed from 1954 to 1964 made him the inspiring leader so many Americans remember and revere to this day. Becoming Ronald Reagan, then, is an indelible portrait of a true American icon and a politician like none other.


“Ronald Reagan took one of the most unconventional paths to the presidency in American history. Robert Mann tells this part of Reagan’s remarkable story in lively, enlightening prose. Ronald Reagan evolved from rags to riches, liberal to conservative, and Democratic to Republican. But as Mann masterfully shows, Reagan’s innate talents and personal genuineness were evident at each stage of his transformation into an icon who will never ride into the sunset for conservatives.”  Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of The Kennedy Half-Century


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