Podcast: David Byrne on the Intersection of Presidents Nixon and Reagan’s Lives and Careers
Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (Henry Burroughs/AP)
David Byrne is author of “Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography.”
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re talking the relationship between America’s 37th and 40th Presidents, both Californians, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Our guest in studio, is David Byrne. He is an adjunct professor of history at California Baptist College and Santa Monica College.
He’s the author of a new book called “Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. Today we’re talking the relationship between America’s 37th and 40th presidents, both Californians, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Our guest in studio today is David Byrne. He’s an adjunct professor of history at California Baptist College and Santa Monica College. He’s the author of a new book called “Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography.” David, thank you so much for joining us.
David Byrne: Thanks for having me, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, what makes your Reagan biography an intellectual biography and different than other Reagan books?
David Byrne: Well, my Reagan biography, as an intellectual biography, it studies his political ideas, his political thought, his political philosophy, and really how it developed in the years and even the decades before he became president. One of the things I had learned in my research is that Ronald Reagan is really a significant thinker in American history. He posited and had many new and significant ideas. And these ideas are really what my book is about, and that’s what distinguishes it from other Reagan biographies.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the research that went into the book?
David Byrne: Well, obviously I spent a little bit of time at the Reagan Library reading some of his old speeches. But a lot of his speeches have been published too. During the 1970s, for example, Reagan actually hosted his own radio show in which he gave speeches and broadcasts every day. And a lot of these handwritten notes have been published. So I was able to read these, and study these, and analyze these. And after doing so, I realized that Ronald Reagan really had some significant and important ideas for American history. So all my sources are really Reagan’s own writings.
Unlike most politicians today, Reagan actually wrote his own speeches. So a lot of my time was simply looking over Reagan’s old speeches, speeches from when he was governor, speeches from when he was running for office. So those are my main sources and really how I did most of my research.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talk about ideas, what sort of ideas of his did you wanna convey?
David Byrne: Well, I wanted to show how Reagan emphasized freedom. Reagan’s first and foremost political idea was that freedom is the greatest principle, freedom is for everyone, all Americans deserve freedom. And not just all Americans, but Reagan significantly wanted to expand freedom to Eastern Europe, to the people of the Soviet Union. Because Reagan believed that communism was flawed, Reagan believed that communism was temporary. And he believed that the people of Eastern Europe could live in a free and democratic society.
Jonathan Movroydis: Moving on to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, when did they first meet?
David Byrne: They would have first met probably in the early 1960s. I know Reagan… They certainly corresponded before that. But I think their first meeting was probably in the early 1960s. I think when, you know, Reagan was running for office and he supported Nixon as candidate in the 1960 presidential election, so probably sometime around then.
Jonathan Movroydis: Reagan became a leader of the Screen Actors Guild. When Nixon first became a congressman and a leading member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating the specter of communism and its influence in America, specifically the case against the accused spy and former State Department official, Alger Hiss, were Nixon and Reagan ideologically kindred spirits in terms of their stance against communism?
David Byrne: Yeah. Absolutely, of course, in their stance against communists, both were rabid anti-communists. Both hated communism, both despised communism, not just for its atheist foundations but really, for Reagan and Nixon, it’s about the tactics that communists used. You know, the communists tended to use very disingenuous tactics and Reagan and Nixon were both well aware of this. And for this reason, they both despise communism, you know, not just politically and ideologically, but for the tactics that the communists used.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Reagan a Democrat at this time?
David Byrne: Absolutely. Reagan was a Democrat, as you probably know, really until roughly the 1950s. He loved FDR. He looked at FDR the same way many Republicans look at Ronald Reagan today as a sort of a demigod. And he worshiped FDR, he supported the New Deal, Reagan did, his entire life. So although, you know, Nixon and Reagan were ideologically anti-communist, at least in the ‘40s, you know, Reagan was a Democrat and Nixon was a Republican.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did he feel about the Truman administration? Nixon, for his part during his case, sort of earned the consternation of President Truman for his investigation of Hiss. How did Reagan square that with his Democratic affiliation?
David Byrne: That was part of the reason that caused Reagan to leave the Democratic Party. As you know, during this time period, the Democratic Party began to be associated with communists. What happened is that after World War 2, many German Marxists came to the United States. They began to infiltrate the Democratic Party. They added a new vein of thinking to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party subsequently became more secularist, it became more socialist, it became less patriotic. And, you know, Hiss demonstrates all of this. And this really helped turn Reagan away from the Democratic Party. And again, by the late 1940s, early 1950s, he began shifting towards the Republican Party.
Jonathan Movroydis: During the Hiss case, there was a colorful witness who knew Hiss and was himself a former communist. His name is Whittaker Chambers. Reagan said that he was probably one of the most influential people on him in his early career. Could you tell us a little about the influence of Whittaker Chambers on President Reagan?
David Byrne: Absolutely. Chambers was certainly a significant source for Reagan’s thought. First of all, of course, Chambers, as you know, began his political odyssey as a communist, but he ultimately broke away from communism. And really what he showed Reagan was just how atheist communism was, how oppressive communism was. And he helped show Reagan that really the religious foundation for American democracy is really the strongest principle of American democracy. And what Chambers said, and what Reagan adhered to, is that communism is an evil system.
If Reagan got the idea that communism is an evil empire from anyone, at least initially, it’s from Whittaker Chambers because it was Chambers who described his voyage away from communism, away from any sort of socialism, towards freedom and democracy. And this helps shape Reagan’s own thought by showing him, you know, the type of flaws that exist in any communist society.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Reagan supportive of Richard Nixon’s political career in the early 1950s, in the California Senate race and then later during the vice president?
David Byrne: That’s a great question. Initially, as you know, Reagan ran against Helen Gahagan
Douglas in the 1950 Senate campaign. And for this part, Reagan actually actively campaigned for Helen Douglas. He would give speeches for her. But as we’ve already described a little bit, as the 1950s began to progress, Reagan left his support for Douglas and, as you probably know, as you already noted, by 1960 he supported Reagan…I’m sorry, Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. So, in other words, in 1950 he campaigned against Nixon. In 1950, he campaigned against Nixon, in 1960 he campaigned for Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: She was a Hollywood starlet in some of the same circles that Reagan was in. Did Reagan at all detect her sympathies towards more of a socialist agenda?
David Byrne: At this time, I don’t think so. I think that’s why he supported her. And, of course, as you know, you know Nixon labeled her a communist. But at this time, you know, Reagan did not see her in that light. Yeah, he was personal friends with her and that’s probably part of the reason he supported her too.
Jonathan Movroydis: Reagan was a Goldwater supporter. Nixon was too, but not as ideologically aligned as Reagan was with Goldwater. How did Reagan’s republicanism differ from…or Nixon’s republicanism differ from Reagan’s towards the mid-1960s?
David Byrne: Well, as you know, Reagan was a hardline conservative in the mold of Barry Goldwater. Nixon was more of a moderate in the tradition of Eisenhower, in the tradition of the Michigan Governor Romney, father of Mitt Romney. Those were the moderates in the party. But Nixon and Goldwater were the hardliners. You know, they wanted to end communism, for example. They were more conservative on social issues. As you know, you know, Nixon continued some of the Great Society policies, which Reagan despised. So both, you know, economically and as you know also, Reagan really was much harsher, at least in practice during his presidency, against the communists than Nixon was. So as a hardline conservative, really to the right of Goldwater…I’m sorry to the right of Nixon, you know, Reagan was less willing to compromise with Democrats on social issues. So that’s, you know, one way that he and Nixon differed.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Reagan… By 1968, Nixon is getting ready for his presidential bid, was Reagan more or less a follower of the Buckley Rule, you know, electing the most electable Republican that you could?
David Byrne: Yeah. Reagan a pragmatist. You know, he supported Goldwater, of course, first and foremost. But once Nixon got the nomination, Reagan was a party man, so he certainly supported Nixon, you know, once Nixon got the Republican nomination in 1968.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why did he decide to make his own go of it for president in 1968?
David Byrne: I think he really thought he could have won. You know, he was a very successful governor, very popular governor, and he had a lot of support, really not just in California but around the country. He was a very charismatic figure, of course, and he came very close, as you know, to winning, you know, the 1968 Republican nomination.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think the country at that point was ready for a conservative leader?
David Byrne: Yeah, that’s a good point. Maybe America wasn’t ready for someone like Ronald Reagan yet. You know, we saw what happened to Goldwater, you know, in ‘64, so maybe America just wasn’t ready for Reagan’s brand of conservatism yet.
Jonathan Movroydis: He supported Nixon’s political campaign. Was he more or less supportive of his policies, specifically the areas of domestic policies?
David Byrne: Yeah, that is an important difference between Reagan and Nixon. Nixon, of course, you know, continued Johnson’s Great Society and to some degree, Reagan’s political career was launched as an opponent of Johnson’s Great Society. Reagan believed that government was becoming too big. Reagan believed the government was becoming too powerful.
And one of the things I try to show in my book is that for Reagan, the bigger the government, the weaker the citizen is. So, you know, there’s a conservative mantra today that basically says, you know, the bigger the government, the weaker the citizen. That’s really Reagan’s ideas. So as government was expanding, not just under LBJ but ultimately even Nixon, this is what Reagan really opposed. So Reagan actually, you know, he criticized Nixon for continuing Johnson’s Great Society.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon, as you said earlier, was an ardent anti-communist, but his views evolved in the 1960s on how to deal with the communists. He thought about going to China, he wanted a more detente policy with the Soviet Union. How did Reagan feel about these major foreign policy initiatives?
David Byrne: That’s another important issue where Reagan and Nixon differed. During his presidency, as you know, during détente, Nixon was willing to work with the communists. He signed peace treaties, nuclear arms limitation treaties, the SALT treaty, of course. He met with Mao, he met with Khrushchev in an effort to establish amicable relations. He was willing to cut America’s own defense spending, Nixon was, in order in his mind to promote peace. Reagan opposed all of this.
For Reagan, the best way to defeat communism was not to work with the communists, but rather to undermine them, to show strength. And for Reagan, he criticized Nixon in the 1970s because, in his mind, Nixon was really showing American weakness when he was meeting with these Soviet leaders, when he was cutting the American defense budget. For Reagan, that’s the worst thing you can do. Reagan’s strategy to defeat communism was to increase America’s defense budget. “We need to increase and strengthen our military.” Reagan said. Because this is how we show our own strength and therefore we make the Soviet Union weaker, Reagan believed.
Jonathan Movroydis: But later, he would be sitting down with President…or Premier Mikhail Gorbachev by the late 1980s. I recall Reagan assisting, in terms of China, assisting the administration in its relations with Taiwan following the opening to China in 1972. In what ways did Reagan sort of act as a counselor to Nixon, both on the domestic side and on stateside relations, as well as in foreign relations as well?
David Byrne: Well, Reagan, like I’ve said earlier, he was a party man and he gave speeches supporting Nixon. And he was always, you know, traveling the country giving these little speeches and even on his radio shows, he, you know, he worked to support some of Nixon’s policies once they were already implemented. So those are the ways, you know, publicly he would support Nixon in his diplomatic efforts.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Nixon at all supportive of Reagan during the 1980s?
David Byrne: I think actually Nixon had mixed feelings about Reagan. You know, Reagan began taking conservatism in a new direction and Nixon recognized this. I think Nixon, as well as Goldwater, they might have been a little jealous of the success that Reagan was having. You know, Reagan, of course, won a landslide reelection in 1984, which of course, you know, Nixon did too. But, you know, Reagan’s ultimately ended a little better. So I think, you know, Nixon, like he did about a lot of people, had really mixed feelings about Reagan.
I think partly he saw some of himself in Reagan. But he also saw achievements in Reagan that Nixon was not able to achieve, not just the landslide election which both Nixon and Reagan achieved, but Reagan’s really lasting success and really his lasting popularity in the United States which is not really something Nixon was able to sustain.
Jonathan Movroydis: In our archives, we have some papers regarding Nixon’s counsel to Reagan in both the areas of politics and public policy. Could you touch upon maybe a little bit about the relationship they had during the Reagan presidency?
David Byrne: Yeah. Just as Reagan helped Nixon really from a public perspective during the Nixon presidency, Nixon did the same for Reagan. You know, he would give speeches in support of the president. You know, he actually encouraged, supported Reagan’s meeting with Gorbachev in about 1985 as you can probably guess. So, you know, he supported the more amicable efforts that Reagan embarked upon in the mid-1980s. Because by the mid-1980s, Reagan believed that now we’re the United States, we’re the superior power, we’re the stronger power. Now we can meet with Gorbachev, now we can meet with the Soviet Union. And Nixon publicly supported Reagan in these efforts.
Jonathan Movroydis: We sometimes say that before there were Reagan Democrats, there were Nixon Democrats, that the party began to shift away from, you know, that some Democrats started to peel away from the party and join the Republican Party by the early 1970s, some in the South and some in the Midwest as well. What do you think the combined legacy of both presidents are on the GOP in the country?
David Byrne: Well, I think part of it related to what you said. Part of the reason that they were able to enhance their Party’s base is because both Nixon and Reagan turned the Republican Party into a populist party. And, of course, we see, you know, Donald Trump harness this populism in 2016. Because really what Reagan especially did, one of the things I try to show in my book “Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography,” is that Reagan said, you know, if you want a government for the people, right, it needs to be a limited government, a small government. Because Reagan believed, and subsequently most conservatives believe today, that a big government is not for the people, it’s just for those in government, right? You know, Reagan said you can’t control the economy without controlling the people.
So both he and Nixon…Nixon too, of course. Nixon said, you know, “I’m for the little man,” Nixon said. “I’m against the elites,” Nixon said. “I’m against the elites too,” Reagan said. And, of course, Trump has honored this message that he really inherited from both Nixon and Reagan. This idea that the Republican Party is the party for the people, it’s the party for the little guy, it’s the party that’s against the big elites, you know, the elites with the intellectual power, the elites with the economic power. So that’s really Reagan and Nixon’s both their lasting legacy in terms of the Republican Party. And, of course, too, you know the anti-communism of the Republican Party is, you know, today still strong among the Republican Party. That too is inherited from both Reagan and Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: And some of the same people served in both the Reagan and Nixon administrations. So while there’s…so they’re sort of the continuation between those two presidency, maybe not totally ideologically, but some of the same personnel worked in both administrations.
David Byrne: Absolutely. Let’s see. Let’s see. Of course, you know, George H. W. Bush was the ambassador to China, I believe, and I think Edwin Meese worked for the Nixon administration.
Jonathan Movroydis: Yeah, George Shultz.
David Byrne: Yeah, George Shultz, actually who I was thinking of, he worked for the Nixon administration. So, yeah, there was definitely some… You know, Reagan hired many of his experts from the Nixon administration because Reagan wanted people with a lot of experience. Reagan knew he didn’t have a lot of experience when he became president in 1980. So where’s the best place to look for people with experience? It was people from the Nixon White House, so yeah.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest in studio today is David Byrne, author of “Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography.” Our topic was the relationship between Presidents Nixon and Reagan. David, thank you so much for joining us.
David Byrne: Thanks for having me, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future “Nixon Now Podcasts” at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.