Nixon Foundation Board Member, Nixon Speechwriter and Chief Reagan Speechwriter writes in the OC Register:
Of the eight years and multiple hours I spent collaborating with President Ronald Reagan on speeches, among the most frequent questions I’m asked is, what made Reagan the “Great Communicator?”
A clue lies in a speech I saw him deliver as California governor in 1969, when he addressed the State Republican Party convention. Warming up to his partisan audience, the governor argued against the excesses and silliness of a growing nanny state. Exhibit A, he noted, was an attempt by the state Legislature to mandate that the exit signs over doors in large meeting rooms had to be at least six inches high so that they could be seen in an emergency.
The governor cocked his head, paused for effect, pointed to one such door in the banquet hall, and then drove home his point: “If people can’t see a door that’s 10 feet high, how do we expect them to see a six-inch sign?”
Well, it made sense – just plain common sense, like so much of what he said. Yes, he communicated great ideas and principles, but so have other presidents. What made him different was how he transmitted those ideas. What made him the Great Communicator was Ronald Reagan’s determination and ability to educate his audience, to bring his ideas to life by using illustrations and word pictures to make his arguments vivid to the mind’s eye. In short: he was America’s Teacher.
A few days after his inauguration, we sat down in the Oval Office to discuss his first televised address to the nation on what he called the “worst economic mess since the Great Depression.” The president wanted to convince a fearful nation, and a stubborn Congress, to implement an ambitious agenda of tax relief, budget cuts and regulatory reform.
In a lifetime spent on what he called the “mashed potatoes circuit,” Reagan had preached against government policies that grew inflation and shrank the dollar. Now, he told me, he was in a position to do something about it and said: “I think we can be successful with this speech if only we use it as an opportunity to educate people – to lay out the facts clearly and plainly so they understand the precise challenges we face. I have one idea how to do it.”
So, he looked into the cameras on the evening of Feb. 5, 1981, and entered the homes of tens of millions of Americans, to make real the costs of double-digit inflation: “Let me try to put this in personal terms,” he said. Holding a dollar bill for the camera to capture, he continued: “Here is a dollar such as you earned, spent, or saved in 1960.” Then he reached into his pocket and produced three coins: “And here is a quarter, a dime, and a penny – 36 cents. That’s what this 1960 dollar is worth today. And if the present world inflation rate should continue three more years, that dollar of 1960 will be worth a quarter.”
I had cautioned him against reading a speech while at the same time reaching into his pocket and putting these tiny props in front of a camera. I argued that the mechanics of doing so would be very hard to pull off and risked interrupting the rhythm of his speech. But he was convinced he could do it, and he did. More importantly, he had taken the dry and sterile words of inflation and made them real for his audience. He was right, and I never again questioned his sense of theater and his ability to teach.
Ronald Reagan had all the tools of gifted speaker. He had a voice I likened to a fine Merlot being poured gently into a crystal goblet. Next, his years in film had given him great camera presence – knowing where it was and what it would see. But the third gift made a difference, the result of his years as a radio broadcaster. Radio audiences can see things only in their minds. And Reagan had learned how to hold an audience by using descriptive words and metaphors – the baseball announcer who could make listeners smell the grass, hear the peanut vendors, and see a centerfielder skid across the grass as a line drive barely stuck in the webbing of his mitt.
He “educated” America throughout his presidency. In an early speech to a joint session of Congress, he made clear the dimensions of an approaching one trillion dollar national debt by saying: “….if you had a stack of thousand dollar bills in your hand only four inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.” (When I questioned where he came up with that number, he smiled and said: “by long division.”) Today the national debt is over $14 trillion, and Reagan would relish stacking those bills to the heavens.
He used these tools on the campaign trail as well. Traveling to Nashville for a 1984 political event at the Grand Ole Opry, he had the perfect shorthand way to skewer Democratic president candidate Walter Mondale’s tax-and-spend policies. “I think we all remember that the other side’s promises are a little like Minnie Pearl’s hat – they both have big price tags hanging from them.” A volume of economics summed up with humor and in one sentence.
Later, in a more famous and much more serious forum, he told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall – symbolism which spoke more loudly then the rest of his speech. He not only educated his country, he educated a world. So, in an era of “Star Wars” movies, there was no question how effective was the description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” A short phrase with gigantic meaning.
When President Reagan put pen to paper – and then voice to his words – I became convinced he could see and hear them through the eyes and ears of his audience. He was the Great Communicator because he was the great educator and great illustrator – the teacher who believed if had the opportunity to reach into it, the American classroom would learn well.