Why Reagan Was 'The Great Communicator'
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"Wasn't that amazing?" One of my students at the writer's conference stopped me in the hall after we learned that Ronald Reagan had died. "At the very moment of his death, you were telling our class what a profound impact he had on you as a communicator."
Looking across the Wheaton College campus where the conference was held, I noticed that the flags had already been lowered to half-staff. "The Great Communicator," I repeated. It was, and is, an appropriate title for one of our most beloved presidents.
During his life though, Reagan downplayed the designation. In his farewell address, in typical humble fashion, he redirected the praise:
In all of that time I won a nickname, 'The Great Communicator.' But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.
These were the values that Reagan believed in, and that shaped his decision making as president. And through these bedrock concepts, he became a towering figure in American history, pulling this nation from the malaise of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, and inspiring many to return to the biblical values that made this country the great bastion of freedom that it is.
In that final speech he spoke of this phenomena:
They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
As the nation mourns the death of Ronald Reagan, many on the Left still cannot comprehend such enduring values -- the unchanging moral compass that helped guide Reagan throughout his life. In their relativistic worldview they see Reagan's philosophy as a quaint expression of an archaic way of thinking.
Writing in the New York Times, reporter Marilyn Berger made this statement the day after he died:
Ronald Wilson Reagan, a former film star who became America's 40th president, the oldest to enter the White House but imbued with a youthful optimism rooted in the traditional virtues of a bygone era, died yesterday (italics added)
Perhaps the era of traditional virtues is bygone for Ms. Berger, but for millions of Americans who mourn the passing of 'The Great Communicator,' these values are part of our everyday lives -- and they are very much a reality for this time where we must continually combat the same moral relativism that Reagan grappled with throughout his political career.
Reagan confronted problems of vast complexity, but he approached the solutions to these problems from these core values that he learned as a youngster in the midst of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the rise of the Communist threat. And he communicated these beliefs with a simplicity that made people believe that he truly was 'The Great Communicator.'
In her book, Simply Speaking, Peggy Noonan remembers her time as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and explains why his presidency had such an impact.
He was often moving, but he was moving not because of the way he said things, he was moving because of what he said. He didn't say things in a big way, he said big things Writers, reporters and historians were in a quandary in the Reagan years. 'The People,' as they put it, were obviously impressed by much of what Reagan said; this could not be completely dismissed.
As a person who studies and teaches communication, I cite Reagan as one of the best examples of a professional communicator. That was what I shared with my class at precisely the moment of his death. In his memoirs, Reagan wrote about a meeting early in his presidency with his speechwriters where he told them how he wanted them to craft his speeches. He shared with them what I call this 'the template' for his speeches -- they were to be no longer than 20 minutes, and they were to follow this format; 'tell them what you're going to tell them tell them and then tell them what you've told them.'
This strategy mirrors the way Reagan approached much of life -- do what makes sense, keep it simple, and reflect the solid, conservative values that made America great.
There are so many great moments in the Reagan presidency that could be used as examples, but for me, some stand out as testimony as to why Reagan was 'The Great Communicator.'
Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan shocked the liberals and many in the State Department when he rightly called the Soviet Union the 'evil empire.' As George Will said on the Larry King Show the day Reagan died, "The adjective was right, and the noun was right."
Reagan stood up against Soviet aggression around the world in both words and in actions. He instilled fear in the hearts of the Soviet leaders as he insisted upon the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" as it came to be known in the press. The Soviets knew their economy was failing. They could no longer compete in an arms race that was bankrupting their empire. With the specter of a defensive shield protecting America and her allies the Soviets knew they were in trouble.
And Ronald Reagan ascended to the moral high ground when he stood in front of the Berlin Wall and challenged his Soviet counterpart, declaring,
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
It is fitting that a portion of this icon of the absolute failure of communism stands only a few yards from the president's final resting place in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Through his powers of communication he helped end the Cold War without a war -- one that most likely would have dwarfed any previous global conflict.
Another moment that stands out for me was President Reagan's final State of the Union address. Throughout his political career, and especially as president, Reagan had railed against the bloated and wasteful federal government. Though his administration had cut taxes and worked to trim spending, the Democratic-controlled Congress continued to oppose Reagan's fiscal reforms. The president decided to use this nationally-telecast speech to take his message directly to the American people.
Reagan transitioned into this part of the speech by saying, "Now, it is also time for some plain talk about the most immediate obstacle to controlling federal deficits." At this point, the president lifted a giant stack of papers from under the podium and dropped it on the lectern with a loud thud, declaring,
This is the conference report -- 1,053 page report weighing 14 pounds. Then this -- a reconciliation bill six months late, that was 1,186 pages long, weighing 15 pounds; and the long-term continuing resolution -- this one was two months late and it's 1,057 pages long, weighing 14 pounds. That was a total of 43 pounds of paper and ink.
In communication studies we teach that non-verbal signals convey 70 to 90 percent of a message. With the thud of those papers, Reagan summed up his economic policy -- a message of such potency that it persuaded President Bill Clinton to announce in a later State of the Union speech the end of the era of big government.
Thus was the power of 'The Great Communicator.'
I wasn't old enough to vote the first time Reagan ran for president. My parents, who were Democrats in those days, voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. But a change happened in the hearts of millions of Americans, including my parents, during the first four years of the Reagan presidency. My folks, along with thousands of Democrats, began waking up to the same realization that Ronald Reagan had experienced in the early 1960s when he first registered as a Republican.
In speeches he would declare, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." With a major lurch to the left in the 1960s and 70s, the Democrats alienated regular folks like my parents. On social, economic, defense, and international issues, the Democrats no longer represented the views of many in Middle America.
By the next election my parents had switched their party registration as well. I'm proud to say that I joined them as I cast the first vote of my life for Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1984.
Another memorable moment happened in the midst of that campaign against Walter Mondale. During the presidential debate, Reagan put to rest the one issue that had been resonating for Mondale. Ronald Reagan had been the oldest person to ever be elected president, and Mondale, along with the liberal media, were trying to convince the American people that Reagan was getting too old for the job.
During the debate one of the moderates broached the subject, asking Reagan if he had any doubt that he had the energy necessary to be president. With the deadpan response of a seasoned comedian, Reagan answered, "No I don't, and I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." The audience, including Walter Mondale, burst forth with laughter.
I vividly recall that moment. Watching the debate in my college dorm, I turned to my roommate and said, "Reagan just won the election." And I was right. It was the largest electoral landslide in history -- Reagan bested Mondale with 59% of the popular vote, winning every state but Mondale's home of Minnesota.
During Reagan's second term I grew to appreciate his leadership and skill as a communicator even more. I was part of the shivering crowd of pro-life marchers one frigid January day who listened over loudspeakers to President Reagan on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Reagan encouraged the people to continue defending the rights of the most innocent and vulnerable in society, the unborn.
I was reminded of that inspiring speech on the day that Reagan died when commentator Frank Cessno observed on CNN, "Next to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan may be the most revered president among the Republicans."
Like Lincoln, Reagan fought throughout his presidency to defend the rights of those who were oppressed -- from infants in the womb facing the abortion holocaust, to millions of souls held against their will in communism behind the Iron Curtain.
Reagan was a person of integrity with a reservoir of character that was a product of his upbringing. Those who are familiar with Reagan's story know that his father struggled with alcoholism, causing him to lose a string of jobs, and forcing the family to move continually from town-to-town when Ronald was a boy. But instead of becoming bitter or following in his father's footsteps, Reagan embraced the Christian values of his godly mother.
These values guided him through a career as an actor in Hollywood; through World War Two; through a difficult time as president of the Screen Actor's Guild, opposing the infiltration of communism during the 1940s and 50s; through a television and speaking career as spokesman for the General Electric Company; through his time as Governor of California; and finally as President of the United States.
This inner compass helped Ronald Reagan to become a person of unswerving conviction. He was not a politician who made decisions based on the polls. He had certain core beliefs that shaped his political convictions.
Of course, Reagan's skills as a leader and communicator shined the brightest in times of tragedy. He became the nation's shepherd when the Marine Corps barracks was bombed, killing 220 Marines. He displayed a genuine heart of compassion later toward the families of the astronauts killed when the Challenger exploded.
In a moving speech from the Oval Office on the day of the space shuttle disaster he comforted the nation, saying:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye -- and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
And now Ronald Reagan has been freed from the restraints of this mortal life to also "touch the face of God."
President Bush referred to the former president's often-quoted image of America as a shining city on the hill when he spoke of him soon after his death.
He always told us that for America the best is yet to come. ... We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that the same is true for him. ... We know a shining city is waiting for him.
As his son Michael said on the day of his death, "I'm sure he's now dancing with God."
We pray that Nancy Reagan and the family will be comforted in their time of loss in the same way that Ronald Reagan comforted so many during his years as president. We trust that they will find peace in knowing that a grateful nation mourns with them at the passing of this great communicator, this great president, this great American, this great human being.
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