by Alan Snyder
When hard times come, people might wake up. They might have to rethink their foundational beliefs. Some of that may be happening right now as the Obama administration leads the nation ever deeper into a moral, political, and economic decline. This was supposed to be New Deal II. Well, maybe it is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. If we can come up with a leader who has learned his or her lessons from this experience, there might be hope for real change.
It happened before in the case of Ronald Reagan. Raised a New Deal liberal, Reagan never seriously questioned his political faith until after World War II. It was then that he became president of the Screen Actors Guild and had to confront the enemy in the form of communist subversion of the movie industry. Communist-led strikes created chaos; lives were threatened—even Reagan’s. He had to carry a gun for months after an anonymous caller warned that his actions would end his career. He was told later that plans had been made to throw acid in his face.
Reagan became the voice of the actors in congressional hearings. He went to Washington to testify in 1947.
In his autobiography, he stated,
I was to discover that a lot of “liberals” just couldn’t accept the notion that Moscow had bad intentions or wanted to take over Hollywood and many other American industries through subversion, or that Stalin was a murderous gangster. To them, fighting totalitarianism was “witch hunting” and “red baiting.”
As I noted in a previous posting, his reading of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness in 1952 gave him the basis he needed for understanding and combating the threat.
In the early 1950s, Reagan’s career seemed to be floundering. Then he received an offer that effectively turned his life around. General Electric was initiating a new TV program called General Electric Theater. It needed a host, and Reagan fit the bill.
Reagan’s time with GE became what he called an apprenticeship for public life. It was also a concentrated education in how private enterprise and limited government were the engines for prosperity in a nation. His eight years there were tantamount to a postgraduate course in political science. The best book on Reagan’s association with GE is The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism by Thomas Evans. As Evans demonstrates, by the time Reagan finished his tenure with the company, his change in thinking was complete; he even changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican.
Evans shows how the GE management enacted a plan to educate all GE employees in conservative principles of government and economics. Ralph Cordiner, GE’s president, modeled a decentralized system of management that Reagan adopted in his later years as both governor of California and president. Lemuel Boulware, GE’s vice president and labor strategist, initiated the education program that extended throughout all the GE plants to every employee.
Reagan’s “other” job, official goodwill ambassador for GE, was one that he enjoyed because it allowed him to meet and greet GE workers in plants throughout the country. He did more than simply meet and greet, however: he listened to and interacted with them on a personal level. This allowed him to feel the pulse of the workers.
Reagan began giving speeches to the GE employees he visited. He began to wax eloquent on the problems of “government programs gone wrong” and told stories of “government agencies, which were ‘tax-free, rent-free and dividend-free’ competitors with private citizens.” Reagan was so effective in these talks that Boulware changed his schedule, beginning in 1958, from merely plant visits to addressing civic groups wherever he went.
Long before our current healthcare debacle, Reagan challenged what we now know of as Obamacare.
Reagan’s constant speechmaking honed his ideas and his delivery. Since he already was an actor, he knew how to connect with audiences, but his subject matter was different now—it was almost exclusively policy-oriented. His new ideas took shape, he moved from the political left to the right, and then he used the essentials of his basic civics speech to speak to a national audience during the 1964 presidential campaign. Although he had been a Republican for only two years, Reagan was a strong supporter of Barry Goldwater’s campaign and volunteered to deliver the speech on his behalf on national television. “The Speech,” as many have dubbed it, has a more official title: “Rendezvous with Destiny.”
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. That speech launched his political career. His presidency brought the nation back from the brink of despair.
We face the same despair today. Is there another Ronald Reagan currently being groomed to turn this nation around? I hope so. Another leader with his understanding is desperately needed.