USC Price School of Public Policy

Communication Panel

“Communicating Leadership: Reagan, Rhetoric, and the ‘Great Communicator’ Revisited” Panel

By Matthew Kredell

Communicating Leadership Panel 1 (From left) Dan Schnur, Mary Stuckey and Craig Smith at Davidson Conference Center Watch video »
Photo by Tom Queally

Ronald Reagan’s legacy may be contested but one point in which there is universal agreement is in his rhetorical skill, University of Kansas professor Robert Rowland said Feb. 2 as part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Symposium at USC.

Titled Communicating Leadership: Reagan, Rhetoric, and the “Great Communicator” Revisited, the second of four panels presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development centered around a paper Rowland wrote (“Principle Pragmatism and Authenticity in Reagan’s Rhetoric”) and read in front of students, faculty and community members gathered at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.

The other panelists were Craig Smith, a member of the Board of Trustees for the California State University system and professor of communication studies at CSU Long Beach, Mary Stuckey, professor of communication and political science at Georgia State, and Daniel Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. The panel was organized and moderated by Tom Hollihan, professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Communicating Leadership Panel 2 Robert Rowland, left, and Tom Hollihan
Photo by Tom Queally

Reagan’s rhetoric was influenced by his background as an actor. He was famous for his one-liners, such as “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” in front of the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall and “I hope you’re all Republicans” to the doctors who were about to operate on him after the assassination attempt.

While such lines were memorable and popular, they made it easy to dismiss Reagan as lacking substance. Rowland, a former national champion debater and debate coach, recalled analyzing Reagan’s debate with Jimmy Carter during the presidential campaign of 1980 and realizing that these stereotypes were not accurate. Reagan cited more evidence than Carter and was much better in the rebuttals, which cannot be scripted.

“Reagan would spin out a litany of statistics and then hit a punch line,” Smith said. “People would remember the punch line and forget that this man was highly involved with statistical analysis, much more than we see in presidential rhetoric in recent years.”

Part of Reagan’s substance was his own involvement in writing and editing his speeches, which brought an authenticity to his words over the span of his two terms. He always sounded like Ronald Reagan. To this day, some of Reagan’s detractors claim he was merely an actor playing a role of president laid out to him by advisers. Rowland said this was simply not true.

Take the Westminster Address, which Rowland believes to be Reagan’s greatest speech, where he asserts that Communism will end up on the “ash heap of history.” In analyzing the handwriting files at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Rowland found that Reagan wrote eight of the 58 paragraphs and edited, sometimes quite heavily, another 26 paragraphs.

His time memorizing more than 50 scripts in Hollywood gave him a good ear for what sounded right. In the Brandenburg Gate speech, Rowland said Reagan’s national security staff tried to strip the famous line from the speech but Reagan put the language back in, saying “I’m the president, aren’t I?”

“I was interested in professor Rowland’s research that Ronald Reagan was very involved in his speech making,” said Alex Shoor, a second-year MPA student. “Some of the panelists (on the first day of the symposium) talked about his level of disengagement with his presidency, so seeing him very involved in the rhetorical aspects of it was intriguing. It was not altogether surprising that, as an actor and someone who was involved daily in delivering rhetoric in his previous jobs, this would be an area that he understood had particular resonance.”

Rowland indicated that rhetoric was never more important for Reagan than in his handling of the Cold War, which was won with words and not weapons. Rowland said Reagan was consistent with his rhetoric toward the Soviet Union, providing the following quote Reagan made in 1984 as an example: “History teaches that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap. To keep the peace, we and our allies must be strong enough to convince any potential aggressor that war can bring no benefit.”

He supported arms build-up in order to give the U.S. credibility to eventually negotiate with the Soviet Union. Schnur referred to it as showing the tunnel before trying to sell the light at the end of it, a tactic he teaches his leadership students.

“Talking about a danger, talking about a threat, talking about an ‘evil empire,’ he’s making people understand the nature of the challenge involved,” Schnur said. “He’s showing them the tunnel. But ultimately by talking about how we should never stop searching for genuine peace, he sells them the light at the end of it.”

Stuckey said Reagan was a great admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and voted for him four times. Stuckey compared Reagan to Roosevelt in the way that he was able to move back and forth along the political wind but he always knew, at least in general, where he was going.

“Reagan had one more thing in common with FDR, and that was his ability to make firm statements with a certain geniality of manner that could be quite non-threatening,” Stuckey said. “Equally important, and this differed markedly from Roosevelt, was his ability to be underestimated and to make use of that fact. Politics is not normally a profession for the humble, but Reagan I think was one of the least-defensive men in our public life.”