By Matthew Kredell
The conference ended with a special plenary at the Reagan Library Feb. 2.Ronald Reagan’s life, leadership and legacy were analyzed at USC by former members of the Reagan administration, journalists who covered the Reagan era, political scholars and historians at a conference Feb. 1-2 as part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration.
The Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium was presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development in partnership with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, and the USC Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, which was Feb. 6, the symposium began with three academic panels and a keynote address from USC professor and California historian Kevin Starr, and concluded with a keynote address from broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw and a panel moderated by Brokaw that included Lou Cannon, author of five biographies on Reagan, Douglas Brinkley, editor of The Reagan Diaries, Richard Reeves, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, and former California Governor Pete Wilson.
The four panels covered the following topics:
Reagan had a long history with USC. In 1966, during his run for governor of California, Reagan delivered his speech The Creative Society at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Twenty-three years later, he stood on the same stage to give his first speech after returning home to California from the White House. Stewart McLaurin, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration, presented SPPD dean Jack H. Knott with a framed picture of Reagan wearing a Trojan helmet taken at that 78th birthday celebration. Reagan died in 2004 at age 93.
“USC and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation have a natural intellectual foundation, one we just saw concretely visualized in Ronald Reagan’s Trojan hat,” said USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett. “I think that’s largely because of USC’s longstanding interest in the study of state and local government in addition to the federal government. The breadth of USC’s approach is unusual, as there are very few institutions of higher learning that sponsor serious and excellent programs studying government at all levels.”
The symposium was free to attend for students, faculty and community members. Though Reagan’s impact is still very much being felt in America today, Knott pointed out that his presidency was longer ago than it seems.
“Most students here weren’t born when Reagan was president,” Knott noted. “They look at him as an historical figure the way I look at someone like Dwight Eisenhower. There is a lot that all of us, both students and scholars alike, can learn from the way that Reagan functioned as a communicator, as a leader and as a decision maker in the state of California and as president.”
Some of the key points made by panelists included that Reagan was a big-picture leader. He set a strategic direction and trusted his appointees to formulate and carry out policy. He was known for his humorous and poignant one-liners but had more substance than given credit. He didn’t just present his speeches but played a large role in writing and editing them. In addition, they noted how Reagan held to strong principles but was willing and able to compromise in practice with the opposition party to achieve policy goals.
His congenial manner and ability to form interpersonal relationships served him well in his dealings with Congress and foreign leaders. He took office at a time when many Americans were exhausted from the problems of the previous two decades and he restored confidence in the United States. He established his greatness with his diplomacy in ending the Cold War, leaving a lasting legacy that cast a shadow over the presidents that have followed.
“I thought the scholars brought some interesting perspectives and were really able to touch on all the major points of what we perceived plus what actually happened,” said Larissa Martinez, a second-year MPA student in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.
USC hosted the first of four symposia planned for the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration. The others will take place at the University of Virginia with a focus on global leadership Feb. 10-11, at Notre Dame with a focus on domestic and fiscal policy March 3, and at the U.S. Naval Academy with a focus on strengthening the military Oct. 19.
“We think it’s important not just to be a shining repository on a hill in Simi Valley but to bring an integral voice in the public debate, to provide a platform for great voices and debate in the (Reagan Presidential) Library but also to go into a port of places for ideas like USC,” said McLaurin. “We believe that President Reagan’s legacy is strong, that it will sustain and survive the analysis and the test of time.”
By Matthew Kredell
The Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium kicked off Feb. 1 at USC with an examination of executive leadership and the ways Reagan approached difficult leadership challenges in his eight years as the United States’ 40th president.
The first of four panels presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development featured two former Reagan advisers – Ralph Bledsoe and Peter Hannaford – who relayed their personal stories of dealing with the man to USC students, faculty and community members gathered at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.
“The first-hand account that Ralph Bledsoe was able to bring to some of Reagan’s decisions and how they came about was pretty fascinating,” said Larissa Martinez, a second-year MPA student. “I really enjoyed the panel.”
Bledsoe, who served as special assistant to President Reagan and the first director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and Hannaford, a senior communications adviser to Reagan from his time as governor of California through his election as president, were joined on the panel by two presidential scholars. The professors were James Pfiffner, the director of the doctoral program in public policy at Georgetown University, and Michael Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University. The panel was moderated by Rich Callahan, director of USC SPPD’s state capital and leadership programs.
Pfiffner opened the panel by reading his academic paper (“Paradox of President Reagan’s Leadership”) that focused on the paradoxes of Reagan’s presidency and Reagan’s detached management style.
Pfiffner asserted that Reagan is remembered as a tax cutter, but he signed some of the largest tax increases in U.S. history. He is remembered as standing firm against terrorism, yet he bargained with Iran to trade arms for hostages. He lobbied for smaller government, yet annual federal spending increased from 590.9 billion in 1980 to 1.4 trillion by 1989. He presented the U.S. as a strong and unyielding opponent of Communism, but he sought to find common ground with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the hands of a lesser politician, such deviations from one’s proposed agenda would label him indecisive. Reagan managed to maintain his overall ideals while making his policy shifts appear sensible.
“His broad vision and clear direction made his political ideals appealing,” Pffifner said. “But what made his policy victories possible was his willingness, when faced with political reality, to make pragmatic compromises without seeming to abandon his ideals.”
Reagan was a big-picture leader. He set a strategic direction and left it to his aides to formulate and carry out policy. Hannaford explained that Reagan devised a simple but effective management method that had three elements: 1) To find the job to be done, 2) Pick the right person to do it, 3) Let him or her do the job.
“Other than stating his objectives, he rarely instructed the people he appointed on how to go about the work they were supposed to do,” Hannaford said. “He was self-confident and he was showing his appointees that he had confidence in them. The result is nearly all of them worked very hard to justify what they believed were his expectations and were very loyal to him.”
This philosophy worked well with the right people in charge, but the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrated the downside of Reagan’s passive leadership style. Bledsoe stressed the importance of Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver and Counselor to the President for Policy Ed Meese during Reagan’s first term, and stated his belief that if that team had remained in the White House for the second term, Iran-Contra would not have occurred.
“I found most interesting the idea of President Reagan as a paradox because there are definitely political circles where his legacy is embraced as being the same as the movement he led,” said Micah Scheindlin, a junior majoring in American Studies. “The panelists said it really was not that simple, that the president had far more nuance than some in the conservative movement would like to attribute to him.”
By Matthew Kredell
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 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.
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.”
By Matthew Kredell
Ronald Reagan was a master at creating interpersonal relationships with people, a factor that served him well in his dealings with Congress, School of Policy, Planning and Development dean Jack H. Knott said in moderating the third panel of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Symposium at USC.
The panel, titled “Branching Out: Policy Leadership and Legislative Relations under Reagan,” took place Feb. 2 in front of students, faculty and community members at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.
Matthew Beckmann, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, provided the main paper for discussion (“President Reagan’s Legislative Touch”). He was joined on the panel by George Edwards, professor of political science at Texas A&M, Karen Hult, director of graduate studies at Virginia Tech, and Jim Perry, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University-Bloomington.
In illustrating how Reagan used humor and his warm personality to establish relationships in Congress, Knott told the story of Reagan’s first dealings with the Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, as relayed to him by political commentator Chris Matthews, once an aide and spokesman for O’Neill.
Though his staff advised against it, Reagan insisted that O’Neill was the first person he wanted to meet with after becoming president. They met in the Oval Office, sitting on opposite ends of the couch. The two staffs were nervous that the meeting was going to turn into a shouting match and be a terrible embarrassment. But Reagan sat down relaxed, with a big smile on his face, and told O’Neill a joke. Everyone laughed and O’Neill responded with one of his own. Soon they were at the center of the couch and engaged in conversation. They had a close relationship from then on, so much so that O’Neill was the first non-family member Reagan invited into his hospital room after the assassination attempt. Though they disagreed fundamentally on many important political principles, they worked hard to forge agreements based on compromise to pass important policies.
Reagan pushed an ambitious agenda before an antagonistic Congress to great effect. His first key policy success was the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. He embarked on an aggressive appeal, bringing the swing voters up to Camp David. Then he flew back to Washington and gave a televised speech in his usual affable manner, like a friend talking to another friend about what he proposed to do. The speech was so successful that people overloaded the Capitol switchboard, besieging these moderate Democrats with phone calls to support Reagan’s bill.
“When we think of what can a president do to effect change, 1981 is a place practitioners tend to look and say that was a moment,” Beckmann said.
Edwards saw it a bit differently. He admitted that there has never been a response like that from the American people since, but called it more the president mobilizing his supporters rather than changing public opinion.
“A president can’t create opportunity but what he can do is exploit opportunity,” Edwards said. “When the president announced his program for economic recovery in February of 1981, he already had momentum and few were standing in the way. He was speaking to an assembly of desperate legislators who were predisposed to grant him extraordinary latitude to find a solution to the nation’s woes.”
Beckmann presented his research on the impact presidents make when they actively lobby for a bill. When Reagan did not lobby for legislation, it still went his way 3 percent of the time. When he did solicit legislative votes, the bill passed 39 percent of the time. That is an increase of 36 percent. Beckmann said a 30-percent increase is the average for presidents after World War II.
Perry brought up Reagan’s reaction to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike of 1981 as perhaps his policy decision that had the greatest lasting impact. The union declared a strike on Aug. 3, 1981, seeking better working conditions, higher pay and a shorter work week. In doing so, the union violated a law that banned strikes by government unions. Reagan declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered those remaining on strike to return to work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs. Two days later, Reagan followed through on the threat and fired 11,345 air traffic controllers. He assigned the transportation secretary to find replacements, including some military controllers. He also outlawed those fired from ever returning to federal employment in their lifetime, though the ban was later rescinded by President Bill Clinton.
“It had the consequence of saying it’s OK to fire people who strike and you can replace them,” Perry said. “Prior to that, there was a reluctance to take that sort of firm action on the part of employers. The path of union-employer relations changed forever.”
By Matthew Kredell
Tom Brokaw recalled the first time he met Ronald Reagan to approximately 1,000 people assembled at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Feb. 2 as part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium, co-presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.
Brokaw was 26 years old and on one of his first assignments for the NBC news bureau in Burbank. He remembers the news editor told him: “Kid, we’re going to let you meet with this guy Reagan who thinks he’s going to get nominated for governor. We don’t think he’s going anywhere, but you’ll get to know California a little bit and you’ll be able to ride around with him.”
Forty-five years later, Brokaw gathered with three Reagan biographers and former California Gov. Pete Wilson to discuss the lasting legacy of the United States’ 40th president in a panel titled Biography and the Construction of Presidential Legacy.
Richard Reeves, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, David Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, and Lou Cannon, White House correspondent for the Washington Post during the Reagan administration, brought to the discussion their wealth of knowledge from a combined seven books on Reagan.
“The insight that those guys have into Reagan, the historical context of his life and then his legacy is astounding,” said Sara Pietrowski, a second-year MPA student in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “People who worked with him, who knew him for a really long time, getting to hear what they think of him is a special experience.”
That the news editor underestimated Reagan wasn’t uncommon. Few people thought an actor with a modest academic background could go so far. Cannon, author of five books on the former president, said Reagan himself was the primary reason so many underestimated him. When asked during his campaign for governor of California what kind of governor he would be, he responded, “I don’t know, I’ve never played a governor.”
He was unassuming and self-deprecating, and it put people at ease. Cannon called Reagan “almost egoless.” Reeves added that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon cared a great deal about what people thought of them and how they would be remembered. Reagan was old enough not to really care what people thought of him, and that led to him seeming comfortable in his own skin.
Reagan’s speech making is what launched him into a political candidate, particularly a nationally televised speech he gave in support of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 titled A Time for Choosing. At lunch prior to the panel, Brokaw said Nancy Reagan told him the Goldwater advisers weren’t happy with the content of the speech and didn’t think it would work for a national audience. Nancy wondered what would have happened if Reagan hadn’t given the speech.
“It’s very clear how gifted he was and how at ease at giving a public speech or telling a story,” Brokaw said. “By the time he got to that place where the rest of the country began to see him as a presidential candidate, there was no more gifted a platform performer than Ronald Reagan.”
Brinkley, who edited The Reagan Diaries, noted that, though he is called the “Great Communicator,” Reagan did not tape his White House conversations as Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and Kennedy had before him. He kept large, leather-bound books that he wrote in every day except for a three-day period after the assassination attempt. No other president wrote in a diary that consistently over his administration. From his editing of the diaries, Brinkley discovered that Reagan was not thin-skinned. He might have an outburst in his diary one day, but he always moved on.
Reeves pointed out that presidents are remembered for how they dealt with three or four major events. “No one remembers if Abraham Lincoln balanced the budget,” he said.
What catapults Reagan into the upper echelon of presidents, according to the panelists, was ending the Cold War without firing a shot, avoiding nuclear disaster and the possibility of World War III.
Reeves said he thought Reagan was a good president and a great politician. He still placed Reagan near the top of his second tier of presidents, not at the level of Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt. Cannon took exception to that characterization.
“I think Ronald Reagan was a great president because of what he did with the Soviet Union, with Mikhail Gorbachev,” Cannon said. “The notion that we could destroy civilization as we know it was not a metaphor, it was true.”
Reagan had a plan. He increased U.S. defense spending in order to negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of power and make it clear to Gorbachev that he couldn’t win an arms race, then convinced Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in order to stagnate the Soviet economy. Much of Reagan’s own party and even some among his staff, according to Reeves, thought he was making a fool of himself by trying to deal with Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev does deserve credit, but the guy that made him come to the table was Ronald Reagan,” Wilson said. “… This was a tough guy. He knew how to bargain.”
When Reagan took office, the country was shaken from the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Watergate and a poor economy. He made people proud to be Americans again.
Reagan’s real legacy lies in the impact he still has on America. Brinkley said, “We are living in the age of Ronald Reagan today.” Reeves went as far as to say, “Reagan is still president, as FDR was president for 30 years.”
“Ronald Reagan changed American politics in our lifetime, perhaps forever, by reversing populism in making big government the enemy,” said Reeves, who wrote a paper for the symposium, titled “The Last Campaign: Legacy.” “Big government is the cause of the problem, it’s not the solution. That’s the America we are living in today, the majority opinion in America thinks that the government is inherently bad for them as they once believed big business was. That is an incredible political achievement.”