Opinion: Ronald Reagan’s birth centennial, Part I: Politics came late in his life


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Sunday is the birth centennial of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, cause for numerous political, memorial and academic observances across the country this weekend.

The Ticket invited one of the nation’s top presidential scholars, Prof. Robert Schmuhl of the University of Notre Dame, to examine the political legacy of Reagan as he relates to others of his generation, exclusively for Ticket readers.


(Scroll to bottom for Schmuhl’s biography and book information.) We’ve also included several videos by and about Reagan.

This item is Part I of Schmuhl’s writing.

Part II appears here now.

Please use the share buttons above to pass these on, and perhaps leave your own Reagan memories or thoughts in the comments section below.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Politics came late in life


Born a century ago, on Feb. 6, 1911, Ronald Reagan took the political stage well into his 50s after a multimedia career performing on a variety of other stages. Broadcaster, actor, public speaker, Reagan understood the importance of effective stagecraft long before he became, in his phrase, “a citizen-politician.”

Yet Reagan first captured the public’s attention as a political player by doing what he’d mastered years earlier as an entertainer-endorser.

Delivering a speech supporting Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 wasn’t that different from serving as General Electric’s spokesman in appearances across the country and as host of TV’s “General Electric Theater.” (Watch Reagan’s practiced television skills in this 1979 announcement of ...

... his candidacy for the 1980 election against Democrat Jimmy Carter.)

Reagan’s 1964 oration, approving Goldwater and defending conservatism, was nationally televised near the end of the campaign. Though Lyndon Johnson soundly defeated Goldwater and Reagan’s name doesn’t even appear in Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1964,” that one speech proved to be the political springboard for Reagan personally and for the movement he eventually led.

Smiling, jaunty, avuncular, Reagan then and later was always more complicated than he seemed. He was a political man with definite ideas and more than a modicum of ambition.

Indeed, just two years after his 1966 election as California’s governor, he won his state’s ...


... primary for president. The “favorite son” candidate drew additional support at the Republican National Convention, but he ultimately threw his endorsement to Richard Nixon, the eventual nominee and general election winner over the Democratic ticket of Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. A continuity in Reagan’s political career is the consistent underestimation with which professional pols sized him up. In 1966, Gov. Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown (father of California’s current governor) evinced little worry about winning a third term, even making fun of an actor seeking such a high elective office.

Brown, who’d defeated Nixon in 1962, lost to Reagan by nearly a million votes, carrying exactly three of California’s 58 counties.

In recently released White House tapes from 1971 -- with Reagan already in his second term as governor -- Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger belittle their fellow Republican. Both agree Reagan is “decent,” but his “brains” are “negligible” to Kissinger, and “He’s really pretty shallow” and “of limited mental capacity” in Nixon’s judgment.

As a potential occupant of the Oval Office, Reagan is “inconceivable” to Kissinger, while Nixon expresses a similar sentiment in salty expletives.

What others thought of Reagan mattered little to him as he sought and subsequently served as president. In 1976, he audaciously challenged the incumbent president of his party, Gerald Ford, to keep his type of conservative Republicanism in the forefront, coming close to winning the nomination.

Four years later, he tried again — with Democrats dangerously delighted at the prospect of opposing a 69-year-old who hadn’t been victorious in a general election since 1970. (Here are some Reagan excerpts from ...


... his debate that year. Underestimated again, this time Reagan soundly defeated the incumbent, President Carter.

Then in 1984 -- finally taken seriously by everyone -- Reagan trounced Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, in an epic landslide, 59% to 41%, earning the largest total electoral votes in American history, 525.

(That 1984 victory was fueled in part by one of American politics’ all-time classic television ads, ‘Morning in America,’ that didn’t even show the incumbent’s famous face until briefly at the very end on a political button. See what you think today...

In his campaigns for president, all the speeches Reagan delivered were echoes of the one for Goldwater in 1964. Reagan didn’t change, but the country did -- toward his conservatism.

Robert McFarlane, who served as national security advisor from 1983 until late 1985, once said of Reagan: “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.”

Reagan knew what he wanted to do and what mattered. He had an agenda -- advancing freedom over Communism, building military strength, limiting government involvement, nurturing the economy. And he kept his focus on it. Details to accomplish these goals were left to others.


Almost as importantly, Reagan recognized that the presidency’s “bully pulpit” could be used not only to advance his core objectives but also to inspire the nation. After the tumult of the 1970s -- everything from Nixon’s resignation in disgrace to the malaise of the Carter years -- America needed city-upon-a-hill optimism. And Reagan was uniquely qualified to provide it. (Did you watch his presidential announcement video above on this page?)

Crises -- most notably the Iran-Contra imbroglio -- occurred and proved wounding, but Reagan left the White House with a job approval rating of 63%, the highest exit mark Gallup had measured since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

At that point, Jan. 20, 1989, son Ron Reagan claims in his book, “My Father at 100,” of the possibility of the early onset of Alzheimer’s (“concern that something beyond mellowing was affecting my father,” according to the son, which he says he started to see in 1984) -- a development that would have astounded the nation and world.

In Reagan’s final White House year, he helped elect his vice president, George H.W. Bush, as his successor. Many political analysts, legitimately or not, called it “Reagan’s third term.”

The last time a sitting vice president had gone on to win the presidency was back in 1836, when Martin Van Buren took over from Andrew Jackson, a figure like Reagan in the certainty of his ideas and the force of his personality. (Talk about confidence -- when the twin pistols of an assassin misfired near the end of Jackson’s presidency, as described here, the former general didn’t flinch. He beat the man senseless with his presidential cane.)

Just as we look back and study the Age of Jackson, Reagan is destined for similar treatment. In fact, two years ago Princeton historian Sean Willentz published “The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008.”

Actually, though, Reagan’s shadow started to take shape one decade earlier -- and its penumbra will continue to be a distinct part of American politics well into the 21st century.

Part II -- Ronald Reagan, An All-American American, is now available right here. With more photos and videos.


-- Robert Schmuhl

Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

Among Schmuhl’s books are “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality” (more info here) and “Wounded Titans: American Presidents and the Perils of Power” (more info here).

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