The lighter lessons of Rea­gan

His hu­mor and sunny dis­po­si­tion were skills he prac­ticed, says Mer­rie Spaeth

The Dallas Morning News - - VIEWPOINTS - Mer­rie Spaeth is pres­i­dent of a Dal­las-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion train­ing and strate­gic con­sult­ing firm and was di­rec­tor of me­dia re­la­tions and spe­cial as­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan. Her e-mail ad­dress is [email protected]­

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.

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