The lighter lessons of Reagan
His humor and sunny disposition were skills he practiced, says Merrie Spaeth
An abundance of weighty foreignpolicy-and economic-related commentaries have been published in recent days as the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth Sunday. But it’s also worth noting that the former president offered us many important lessons for our own day-to-day lives.
Here are a few pieces of advice he impressed upon me when I worked for him. They’re useful for anyone who wants to command attention and bring about change:
Smile at people: Reagan knew that when you smile at people, they smile back. When people sense that you like them and are interested in them, they listen differently. They’re open to what you might say. If you watched Reagan at any meeting, even if people were asking hostile questions, he maintained a pleasant expression. It’s as if he wanted to telegraph, “I hope you’ll give me a chance, and I’d like to talk to you.”
Reach out to people who disagree with you: We did almost daily briefings for members of the media and invited many different groupings of reporters and editors. I wanted to invite the editors of women’s magazines, and my suggestion was more controversial than you might think. The editors were considered liberal and probably not supporters of the president. They had probing questions about controversial issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. After the briefing, the editor in chief of Women’s Day said to me: “I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. He was so interested in us.”
Have a good sense of humor: This is perhaps the most underestimated and underappreciated leadership skill. At the bookstore, you’ll find shelves of leadership books, but few deal with humor.
Reagan loved to poke fun at himself. I was in the White House when The Washington Post, which was convinced that Reagan was a dolt, published an anonymous comment that the president fell asleep in Cabinet meetings. It wasn’t true, and chief of staff James Baker was furious. But Reagan thought it was hilarious. For months, at any staff meeting, when someone asked a question, he would say: “Could you ask that again? I must have dozed off.”
He disarmed critics with his humor. In one of the presidential debates, he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying that age wasn’t important, experience was. Reagan paused and added, “And right after he told me that… ” It got a big laugh.
He knew the value of a good line in any situation. He delivered one of his best as he was helped out of the limo and into the hospital after he was shot by a would-be assassin. Although he must have been in great pain, he insisted on walking. (I always assumed the Secret Service agents were propping him up.) He looked up, smiled and said to America, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Remember that a good story can build bridges: I watched him search for and practice a story to tell when he met Glamour magazine’s Outstanding Women of America: “This reminds me of a story. A man collapses, and a woman at his side begins to kneel down. Another man approaches, pushes her aside and says: ‘I’ve had CPR training. Let me handle this.’ He begins to go over the steps, reciting ‘check his breathing, loosen his tie,’ and the woman taps his elbow and says, ‘When you get to the part where it says call a doctor, I’m right here.’ ” The Glamour winners applauded.
As we celebrate President Ronald Reagan and his legacy, remember that his sunny disposition and ability to turn a phrase were skills he practiced. He did so because he thought they were as important as the policies he advocated. I frequently hear people say, “But I’m not naturally funny.” Reagan would have said, “Neither was I, but I cared enough to learn.” That’s his real lesson for us today.