Ron­ald Rea­gan and Gen­eral Elec­tric: School­ing the great com­mu­ni­ca­tor

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Much has been writ­ten about Ron­ald Rea­gan’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. But sur­pris­ing­lylit­tle­fo­cus,un­til now, has been given to the spe­cific pro­cess­es­that­mold­edthe40th­pres­i­dent’spo­lit­i­calviews.ThomasE­vans’ latest book pro­vides a wel­come re­dress to that con­di­tion, dis­cussing how Mr. Rea­gan rose up from New Deal con­ser­vatism to be­come the con­ser­va­tive stan­dard-bearer of the last­third­ofthe20th­cen­tury.Lon­gon de­tails on Mr. Rea­gan’s as­so­ci­a­tion with­Gen­er­alElec­tric,thisvol­umeis a nec­es­sary ad­di­tion to any Rea­gan li­brary.

The con­ven­tional wis­dom regardingMr.Rea­gan’srise­t­o­na­tional po­lit­i­cal vis­i­bil­ity and vi­a­bil­ity is that he was “made” when he de­liv­ered what has come to be known as “The Speech”just­be­fore­the1964­elec­tion on­be­hal­fofRepub­li­can­pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barry Gold­wa­ter.

As­the­sub­ti­tle­wouldindi­cate,the truth is that Mr. Rea­gan was not just some overnight celebrity on the po­lit­i­calscene.On­the­con­trary,ar­gues Mr.Evans,Mr.Rea­gan­wasaf­forded a “post-grad­u­ate course in po­lit­i­cal science” cour­tesy of his long­time as­so­ci­a­tion with Gen­eral Elec­tric andthe“pro­found­in­flu­ence”of­long­time GE vice pres­i­dent and la­bor strate­gist Le­muel Boul­ware, who served as Mr. Rea­gan’s pri­mary po­lit­i­cal men­tor through his GE years and be­yond.

How­pro­found­wasBoul­ware’sin­flu­enceon­the­fu­turepres­i­dent?This ex­haus­tively re­searched vol­ume shows that the “free-mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ist” Boul­ware of­fered Mr. Rea­ganapo­lit­i­cale­d­u­ca­tion­tha­tex­tended “well be­yond the bar­gain­ing ta­ble,” Mr. Evans writes early on. “He be­came familiar with such di­verse thinkers as von Mises, Lenin, Hayek, and the Chi­nese mil­i­tary strate­gist Sun Tzu. He read and reread the prac­ti­cal eco­nomics of Hen­ryHa­zlitt.He­quot­edJ­ef­fer­son, Madi­son, and Hamil­ton.”

Mr. Rea­gan, who largely trav­eled by train dur­ing his years mak­ing speeches and pub­lic ap­pear­ances on­be­hal­fofGE,cer­tain­ly­hadample time to ab­sorb the ma­te­rial and the phi­los­o­phy Lem Boul­ware of­fered. And it was not long un­til sound con­ser­va­tive eco­nomic pol­icy took hold in the fu­ture pres­i­dent’s brain, lead­ing him to a “con­ver­sion” that led him to ob­serve, years af­ter the fact, that dur­ing his time at GE “I wasn’t just mak­ing speeches — I was preach­ing a ser­mon.”

Even as Mr. Rea­gan was be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly adroit ex­po­nent of the con­ser­va­tive gospel, he was serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the Screen Ac­tors Guild in 1958 when he was forced to threaten a strike in protest of un­fair la­bor prac­tices through­out the mo­tion pic­ture in­dus­try.

As the present vol­ume il­lus­trates, Mr. Rea­gan had a leg up in ne­go­ti­a­tions in part be­cause of the lessons he learned from Boul­ware, so bril­lianton­theother­side­of­thetable.Mr. Rea­gan was so suc­cess­ful in his role that many in his in­dus­try seemed to take it per­son­ally for years af­ter­wards, as best ev­i­denced by Jack Warner’s zinger dis­missal of Mr. Rea­gan’scam­paign­fortheCal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor­shipin1966.“No,no,no,no — you’ve got it all wrong,” the pro­ducer non­pareil de­clared af­ter Mr. Rea­gan’s vic­tory in Cal­i­for­nia. “Jimmy Ste­wart for gov­er­nor, Ron­ald Rea­gan for best friend.”

ThoughJack­Warn­er­may­havere­garded — or pre­tended to re­gard — Mr.Rea­ganas­apo­lit­i­cal­lightweight, the fu­ture pres­i­dent had no such delu­sion­s­abouth­is­formerem­ployer and­ne­go­ti­at­ing­part­ner.He’squoted here as pithily say­ing that “af­ter the stu­dios,Gor­bachevwasas­nap.”And who would deny him that in­sight? It can be said that Mr. Rea­gan’s par­tic­u­lar Hol­ly­wood ca­reer was in­te­gral to mak­ing him the pres­i­dent he was. And, as Mr. Evans ar­gues, his late ca­reer would have shaken out much dif­fer­ently with­out the in­tel­lec­tual reg­i­men he adopted as his time in Hol­ly­wood be­gan to run out.

For those who know lit­tle about Le­muelBoul­ware­and­his“take-it-or­leave-it”ap­proach­toem­ploy­ee­m­an­age­ment, this book will be a reve­la­tion. Clearly, Mr. Evans re­warded GE’swill­ing­nessto­give­himthe­first lookat­pre­vi­ousl­y­sealed­pro­pri­etary doc­u­ments with a book so fa­vor­able tothe­com­pa­nythatit­seem­stogloss over­any­ofBoul­ware’sorGE’sflaws. The book is so cen­tered on those early years, that, when the au­thor fi­nally gets around to dis­cussing the Rea­gan pres­i­dency, the treat­ment of the later stuff seems dis­tinctly sum­maris­tic and semi-com­plete, in the vein of ac­counts found in a high­school civics text.

De­spite th­ese qualms, how­ever, the book is def­i­nitely worth read­ing for those who want to know how Ron­ald Rea­gan evolved into the “Great Com­mu­ni­ca­tor” of po­lit­i­cal yore.

A.G. Gan­car­ski is a writer in Jack­sonville, Fla.

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