Rea­gan’s jour­ney from Demo­crat to GOP traced in new book

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Stacy McCain

Ron­ald Rea­gan is best known as the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent who helped de­feat the “Evil Em­pire” of the Soviet Union. But be­fore he was a Repub­li­can, he was a Demo­crat, and dur­ing the 1940s, Mr. Rea­gan un­wit­tingly joined two or­ga­ni­za­tions that were “fronts” for the Com­mu­nist Party.

How did a New Deal Demo­crat who had once been a “dupe” of the com­mu­nists emerge as a staunch Repub­li­can anti-com­mu­nist? That’s the story Ed­ward M. Yager tells in his new book, “Ron­ald Rea­gan’s Jour­ney: Demo­crat to Repub­li­can.”

An as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at West­ern Ken­tucky Univer­sity, Mr. Yager con­ducted re­search at the Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary for his book. The fol­low­ing are excerpts of a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view:

Q. Why is Ron­ald Rea­gan’s early iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Demo­crat im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer?

A.

Be­cause over about a 17year pe­riod, from 1945 to 1962, he strug­gled to make sense of the po­lit­i­cal world. And he learned from his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences there in Hol­ly­wood. He also learned from his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences while on tour [as a spokesman for] Gen­eral Elec­tric, and he con­sis­tently dis­cussed and de­bated po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and pol­icy is­sues with friends and fam­ily. And he also learned from a variety of books and mag­a­zines. [. . . ]

So he was an en­gaged cit­i­zen, try­ing to make sense of the po­lit­i­cal world dur­ing the post­war pe­riod. Through th­ese dif­fer­ent sources [. . . ] he de­vel­oped his own po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of hav­ing a hard-line po­si­tion to­ward the Soviet Union in par­tic­u­lar and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nism in gen­eral. His do­mes­tic pol­icy views, those evolved later, dur­ing the mid- to late-1950s.

His po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment was over a long pe­riod of time. It was grad­ual and se­quen­tial. [. . . ] So that by 1962, when he changed his party af­fil­i­a­tion, he had a co­her­ent po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy that would guide him through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Q. It was as a union leader in Hol­ly­wood that Mr. Rea­gan first came in con­flict with the Com­mu­nist Party. How did that af­fect his un­der­stand­ing of the com­mu­nist threat?

A.

He re­acted at that time to their tac­tics. When he was pres­i­dent of the Screen Ac­tors Guild [. . . ] there was a mi­nor­ity fac­tion within the Guild that were com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers and pos­si­bly Com­mu­nist Party mem­bers. He per­ceived that there were de­cep­tive and ma­nip­u­la­tive tac­tics em­ployed by that mi­nor­ity fac­tion.

Q. Mr. Rea­gan em­pha­sized Com­mu­nist Party tac­tics, rather than ide­ol­ogy, in his op­po­si­tion to com­mu­nism. Why?

A.

Dur­ing this early pe­riod, in his po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, he was still learn­ing about the ide­ol­ogy, but he was en­coun­ter­ing the tac­tics first hand. And it wasn’t just in his union. He had also ob­served sim­i­lar tac­tics with two hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions he be­longed to — one was the Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans Com­mit­tee and the other was a Hol­ly­wood arts and pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tion.

He ob­served com­mu­nist in­fil­tra­tion and a small mi­nor­ity em­ploy­ing un­eth­i­cal tac­tics to gain con­trol. He, along with oth­ers, left those two or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The other im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence he had dur­ing that pe­riod was a ju­ris­dic­tional strike where one of the unions in Hol­ly­wood, rep­re­sent­ing crafts work­ers, the lead­er­ship [. . . ] had link­ages to the Com­mu­nist Party [. . . ]and Rea­gan’s own Screen Ac­tors Guild was in con­flict with this union, the Con­fer­ence of Stu­dio Unions, the CSU. The lead­er­ship of the CSU re­sorted to in­tim­i­dat­ing tac­tics [in­clud­ing] vi­o­lence to get their way. Rea­gan be­lieved that it was com­mu­nistin­spired.

All three of those episodes oc­curred in a brief time frame, from 1945 to 1947.

Q. You write that Mr. Rea­gan tended to dis­trust in­tel­lec­tual elites, yet at the same time he was in­flu­enced by such in­tel­lec­tu­als as the Aus­trian econ­o­mist Friedrich Hayek. What was the dif­fer­ence be­tween th­ese two types of in­tel­lec­tu­als?

A.

On the one hand, those in­tel­lec­tu­als that called for elite con­trol of gov­ern­ment, thereby vi­o­lat­ing demo­cratic norms of ma­jor­ity rule by the peo­ple, Rea­gan op­posed. But in­tel­lec­tu­als like Hayek and oth­ers, that op­posed elite con­trol of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tem, Rea­gan sup­ported. [. . . ]

It’s also con­sis­tent with his pop­ulist mes­sage to the peo­ple. Even though he was a Repub­li­can, he was an ar­dent demo­crat — with a small “d” — and felt that the peo­ple could best run their lives, rather than Wash­ing­ton elites. Thus, he fa­vored lim­ited gov­ern­ment, es­pe­cially a smaller role for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Q. You em­pha­size that Mr. Rea­gan saw his per­sonal story as part of a larger nar­ra­tive, “the Amer­i­can Dream.” Why was that im­por­tant to Mr. Rea­gan’s suc­cess?

A.

He was able to re­al­ize the Amer­i­can Dream — he came from a poor fam­ily in the Mid­west and, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Eureka Col­lege in Illi­nois, he launched out on his own dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. [. . . ] Be­fore he even ran for pub­lic of­fice in 1966, he was able to en­joy suc­cess. [. . . ]

He at­trib­uted that to the free­dom that he had in Amer­ica to re­al­ize his dreams. Out of that per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, free­dom re­ally be­came the core value in his po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. [. . . ]

Q. Has the Rea­gan phi­los­o­phy had any im­pact in the aca­demic world?

A.

In gen­eral, Rea­gan isn’t one of the more pop­u­lar pres­i­dents in the aca­demic world. How­ever, it’s in­ter­est­ing that you’ll find in schools of busi­ness and eco­nomics de­part­ments, you’ll find greater sup­port for Rea­gan. But you move over to hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sci­ences, and sup­port for his pres­i­dency de­clines pre­cip­i­tously. [. . . ]

Un­for­tu­nately, I think that aca­demics that haven’t stud­ied Rea­gan [. . . ] of­ten give sig­nif­i­cant weight to a stereo­type of Rea­gan not be­ing much of an in­tel­lec­tual. If they probe more deeply, they would find that he val­ued ideas more than most pres­i­dents, even though he would be the first one to say he wasn’t an in­tel­lec­tual. [. . . ]

Q. Many vet­er­ans of the “Rea­gan Revo­lu­tion,” in­clud­ing Richard Viguerie and Bruce Bartlett, have ac­cused Repub­li­cans of aban­don­ing many of Mr. Rea­gan’s prin­ci­ples. Do you agree?

A.

Yes, I do. I think that many of the Repub­li­cans in Congress have be­come pre­oc­cu­pied with hold­ing onto power, fundrais­ing, ear­mark­ing [. . . ] and they’ve lost their mes­sage. It’s not just the mes­sage of fis­cal re­straint and fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity [. . . ] but that’s a larger re­flec­tion of their lost phi­los­o­phy of lim­ited gov­ern­ment, which Rea­gan was al­ways em­pha­siz­ing. [. . . ]

I think there are dra­matic dif­fer­ences be­tween the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. In many ways, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion [. . . ] has be­come a party of big gov­ern­ment. It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Rea­gan, be­tween 1955 and 1962 [. . . ] he crit­i­cized both Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic par­ties as be­ing par­ties of big gov­ern­ment — high taxes and high spend­ing. It think it’s safe to say [. . . ] if he were alive to­day, he’d be crit­i­cal of both par­ties — more so on the spend­ing side.

Ron­ald Rea­gan

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