On Monday, November 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan delivered an election-eve speech in which he sought to clinch his relationship with the voters. As he said of Americans, “They seek a vision of a better America, a vision of society that frees the energies and ingenuity of our people while it extends compassion to the lonely, the desperate, and the forgotten.” In those words we see the essential Reagan: optimistic about human creativity and ingenuity, yet mindful of the need to include everyone.
We could further observe that Reagan was being true to his roots in mass entertainment. After all, radio, movies, and TV–three media that Reagan had mastered–were all aimed at the widest possible audience, reaching into each home and gladdening every heart. There was nothing elitist about The Gipper.
Indeed, in the same speech, Reagan added a uniquely Hollywood touch, summoning up the memory of a movie legend and casting it to his own advantage:
Last year I lost a friend who was more than a symbol of the Hollywood dream industry; to millions he was a symbol of our country itself. And when he died, the headlines seemed to convey all the doubt about America, all the nostalgia for a seemingly lost past.
“The Last American Hero,” said one headline; “Mr. America dies,” said another.
Well, I knew John Wayne well, and no one would have been angrier at being called the “last American hero.”
Just before his death, he said in his own blunt way, “Just give the American people a good cause, and there’s nothing they can’t lick.” Duke Wayne did not believe that our country was ready for the dust bin of history, and if we’ll just think about it we too will know it isn’t.
Reagan was saying that Wayne didn’t mind being an American hero, and yet the Duke emphatically rejected the idea that the US couldn’t have many more heroes after him. All we needed, Wayne seemed to be saying from the grave, was the right leadership.
And so now, in Reagan’s telling, we come to the 1980 election. The implication was clear: In that moment, what better leader could America have than Wayne’s good friend, Ronald Reagan? After all, Reagan had often played the leading man’s best friend in the movies, and so it only made sense: if the leading man were out of the picture, well, the best friend was the logical successor.
In the next day’s election, Reagan won 44 states.
That was Reagan in action: a great president, to be sure, but no small part of his greatness coming from his origins in show business. He not only knew how to tell a story, he also knew how to write a whole scenario, including the happy ending–and starring himself.
As Peggy Noonan wrote recently, it’s just not possible to comprehend Reagan without comprehending his background in show biz:
What people don’t understand about Reagan is that his self-conceptualization in the first 40 years of his life, meaning the years in which you really become yourself, was as an artist. Not a political leader or an economist, not a geo-strategist, but an artist. I saw this when I went through his papers at the Reagan Library. As a boy and young man he was a short story writer, a drawer of pictures, then an actor. He acted in college, went into broadcasting and then went on to act professionally. He paid close attention to script, character, the shape of the story. He came to maturity and middle age in Hollywood, which was full of craftsmen and artists, and he respected them and was one of them.
He cared about politics and came to see himself as a leader when he was immersed in Screen Actors Guild politics, and later led that union.
But he, to himself, was an artist.
And the thing about artists is they try to see the thing whole. They try to get the big shape of things. They’re creative, intuitive. Someone once said a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist, and it’s true. An artist has imagination, tries to apprehend the full sweep of what’s happening. An actor understands what moment you’re in, in the drama.
We can find proof of Reagan’s artistry in his triumphant geopolitical leadership. During the Gipper’s watch, 1981 to 1989, the tenuous stalemate of the Cold War became a gathering victory for the US and the West.
Perhaps the true hinge moment in the Cold War was the Strategic Defense Initiative–that is, missile defense, aka “Star Wars”–that Reagan announced on March 23, 1983.
What can’t be lost today is how different, even radical, SDI was. During the long decades of the Cold War, the basic idea had been containment and nuclear deterrence. That is, we would seek to contain the advance of Communism, even as we deterred the Soviets from any thoughts of a nuclear strike by the prospect of a devastating retaliation. Such “Mutual Assured Destruction,” nicknamed MAD, made for a queasy kind of peace.
To the anointed experts of the day, this Cold War arrangement was inevitable, perhaps even desirable. The world would be balanced and, for the most part, stable–even if the Soviet Union and its allies still felt free to seek small conquests in the 70s, including South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Angola in 1975, as well as Afghanistan in 1979.
Still, in the minds of the foreign-policy mandarins–such as US State Department planner Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a top aide to Henry Kissinger–the biggest single concern was stability in Europe. The so-called Sonnenfeldt Doctrine sought to permanentize the peaceful division of Europe between the West and the East. Sonnenfeldt, Kissinger, and other foreign-affairs grandees were not in any sense pro-Communist; they were simply pessimists. They believed that the paramount goal was avoiding World War Three, and to avoid such a war they would have to concede perpetual Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and, perhaps quietly, other areas, too.
Within the confines of this framework, it was good for Americans and Russians to work on treaties of various kinds, including arms-control treaties. The vision was to bolster the status quo with confidence-building measures. But missile defense? That was out of the question–that was a confidence-buster. The agreed-upon goal was balance through MAD, and anything that might upset that balance was seen as, well, madder than MAD.
Yet Reagan, out there in California, was not part of these agreements. He had a different vision. He had come to hate Soviet Communism in the ’40s when, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he had confronted Communist-controlled labor unions. As he told an audience in 1951, “The Russians sent their first team, their ace string, here to take us over….We were up against hardcore organizers.” In Reagan’s mind, there could be no coexistence with the Communists, not in Hollywood, not anywhere else.
So Reagan, living on the West Coast, simply had a different outcome in mind–a different vision–than did the professionals of the East Coast. Where they saw painful historical inevitability, Reagan saw a future destiny that could be changed with the right kind of thinking. Perhaps the difference was in the two far-from-each-other coasts. Born in the Midwest, Reagan had gone west, not east; he had transformed himself from a working-class Illinois boy to a rich Hollywood star.
Indeed, Reagan was always conscious of the human capacity for reinvention. It was never in his nature to bow to some perceived inevitability. As he would declare in his 1986 State of the Union address, “History is no captive of some inevitable force. History is made by men and women of vision and courage.” Thus the spontaneous optimism of the self-made West Coaster could and would trump the erudite pessimism of the well-credentialed East Coasters.
In addition, Reagan possessed another California trait: a deep appreciation for the transformative power of technology. As he would say in that November 3, 1980 speech, the energy and ingenuity of the American people would make all the difference.
Born in 1911, Reagan had not only seen the power of new inventions in his own lifetime, he had used them in his own career–first in radio, then movies, then television. When he referred to John Wayne of the “Hollywood dream industry,” he knew, firsthand, whereof he spoke–not just the man, but the medium as well.
Indeed, Reagan had learned a lot from the movies–more than the experts had learned from their books.
For example, in a 1940 film, Murder in the Air, Reagan played Brass Bancroft, a U.S. Secret Service agent fighting enemy saboteurs. In the film’s finale, the Bancroft character goes aboard a US Navy dirigible, where he watches as a new American weapon, the “Inertia Projector,” shuts down the electricity supply of an enemy airship, sending it crashing down to earth. As a Navy admiral explains, the Inertia Projector “not only makes the United States invincible in war, but, in doing so, promises to become the greatest force for world peace ever discovered.” In other words, a new invention would usher in an era of peace through strength.
Now we can fast-forward nearly four decades. Reagan the movie star and TV actor was in no position to affect US strategic policy. Nor could he do so as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. But as president, he could. In the White House, he would no longer have to accept the strategic situation as created by others; he could use his own powers of imagination and persuasion to recreate the facts.
On July 31, 1979, as he was preparing his triumphant run for the presidency, Reagan visited the NORAD base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He was reminded, yet again, that the US had no defense against Soviet missiles–we had deterrence, yes, but no defense.
As recorded by Reagan domestic policy adviser Martin C. Anderson in his book Revolution, Reagan said, “We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us.” Reagan pondered some more and then added, “We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.”
A year-and-a-half later, Reagan was in the White House, holding two big ideas in his head: First, we should not settle for coexistence with Communism; we should defeat Communism. Second, we should apply superior economic muscle, including technology–the fruits of energetic and inventive minds–to secure that victory.
Using his bully pulpit, the 40th President sought to changes minds–and change the world. In a Notre Dame commencement speech on May 17, 1981, Reagan declared that the future would be bright:
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. It won’t bother to denounce it. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
That was the essential Reagan idea: The US was going to win, and the Soviets were going to lose.
Meanwhile, from the Oval Office, the Commander-in-Chief took concrete steps to make his vision a reality. He worked to aid the Solidarity movement in Poland, bypassing the pessimistic stability-first tenets of the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine. Similarly, he offered aid to anti-Communist forces in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. Indeed, to the whole world, Reagan offered hope: In a March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, he bluntly labeled the USSR as an “evil empire.” The East Coast establishment jeered, and yet most of the country cheered. Finally someone was telling the truth about the Communists.
Earlier Presidents, to be sure, had worked to aid anti-Communist forces. On more than one occasion, Commanders-in-Chief had committed U.S. troops, as in Korea and Vietnam. And earlier Presidents, too, had been willing to sound the rhetorical trumpet against the Communists. So what set Reagan apart? Why did this President’s anti-Communism prove so effective?
As we have seen, Reagan was blessed with “Great Communicator” gifts, and in his disconnectedness from East Coast orthodoxies, he was willing to try new things–in particular, missile defense. The U.S. had considered such technology in the past, but American Presidents had mostly seen the idea as a bargaining chip–as something to be traded away, as Richard Nixon and Kissinger had done when they spent three years negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
By contrast, Reagan had a completely different goal in mind. He wanted to build–and keep–missile defense. As he said when he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on March 23, 1983, “I want to offer hope for the future.”
In this speech, Reagan, the studio-trained narrativist, was determined to stay out of the weeds of budget jargon. So before he shared his new defense vision, he spoke in careful terms:
First, let me say what the defense debate is not about. It is not about spending arithmetic. I know that in the last few weeks you’ve been bombarded with numbers and percentages….The trouble with all these numbers is that they tell us little about the kind of defense program America needs or the benefits and security and freedom that our defense effort buys for us.
In other words, we will lost get lost in numbers, in “spending arithmetic.”
And more than three decades later, one might dwell on the political importance of this point. Budgets themselves are interesting only to a wonky few. What matters are the ideas behind the budget–the vision. If the leader can sell the vision, the details will take care of themselves. But if the leader can’t sell the big idea, the details won’t help make the sale at all. No advocate should make the mistake of assuming that a pile of arcane verbiage is the same thing as an effective narrative.
Fortunately for us, in 1983, Reagan had his big vision: He wanted more than just the Cold War status quo; he wanted a transcendent missile defense. With that, we could win the long twilight struggle–without MAD, without firing a shot. As he put it:
Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are. Indeed, we must.
After careful consultation with my advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe there is a way. Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.
What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?
I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it’s reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.
Reagan’s speech was wildly controversial. Although most Republicans supported SDI, even if the idea was outside of the GOP mainstream.
Meanwhile, the liberal-left went into a warp-drive of hostility. Critics fixed the “Star Wars” label on SDI; in their minds, slapping a Hollywood label on the program was a kiss of derisory death. They didn’t care that Reagan had worked out the SDI idea with some of the leading scientists of the era, notably Edward Teller, father of the H-Bomb. Indeed, in their gleeful antagonism toward any idea of Reagan’s, the critics didn’t seem to notice that in those “Star Wars” movies, the ray guns worked just fine. And come to think of it, the film itself was an inspiring tale of the triumph of good over evil. To liberals and leftists of that era, it was easy to see Reagan as Darth Vader, but to the average American, the Soviets were that deep-voiced man in black, along with his stormtrooper henchmen.
Meanwhile, in the real world, as the Soviets studied SDI’s potential, they quickly concluded that they couldn’t compete. The Russians could hurl big missiles into the air, aimed at fixed targets, and get close enough–but they lacked the nuanced and nimble computer systems needed to shoot a missile down in mid-flight. And so while liberals in America were insisting, without proof, that SDI could never work, the Soviets were concluding that it would work–and that they were going to lose.
As the Government Accountability Institute’s Peter Schweizer noted in his 2003 book, Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, a top Soviet adviser, Genrikh Grofimenko, admitted to an American, “Ninety-nine percent of the Russian people believe that you won the Cold War because of your president’s insistence on SDI.”
So that was Ronald Reagan. Only he could enlist John Wayne to help him in his Presidential campaign. Only he could summon up a vision of strategic transcendence with help from his own long-ago movie about an Inertia Projector.
Yet now, a quarter century after Reagan left office, the U.S. faces new strategic confrontations, with Russia, with Iran, possibly with China. Will we have the sort of transcendent, victorious vision that we need? Or will we settle for something less? Even much less?
As Barack Obama does his best Jimmy Carter impression–and he’s good at that–the rest of us might wonder if there’s another Reagan on the horizon. And perhaps from California? For all its faults, the Golden State is still the greatest single font of creativity and transformation within our American nation. In addition to the movies, Los Angeles has given us video games, yet another dream industry. And three hundred or so miles up Highway 101 is an even bigger citadel of technological exuberance, Silicon Valley.
To be sure, most of the visionaries today, South and North, see themselves as Democrats, or Democrat-leaners, not Republicans. But we might recall that Reagan was a Democrat until he was in his 40s, and, as we have seen, even after he switched parties, he was anything but an orthodox Republican.
Of course, the future world-changing hero need not actually possess a California driver’s license. The powers of communication and transformation that Reagan wielded were unique to him, not to his locale. So we can just say this: If the next Republican champion thinks in bold colors, not pale pastels, he or she will be an honorary Californian.