Ronald Reagan and General Electric: Schooling the great communicator
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.