Ronald Reagan was more than a president. He was a phenomenon. Since he left office in 1989, many authors have tried to effectively identify who this man really was. He was an icon to some, and an enigma to others. He stood up to the worst economic, domestic, and international threats of the time and yet, took naps in the middle of cabinet meetings. At the height of his popularity in 1986, he had, as Time magazine put it, found America’s sweet spot. Reagan had ideals of what he felt America should be like, and made it his number one goal to share his unrelenting optimism with every person in the country.
He pledged to bring Americans a little good news. and created a strong bond with the public. Throughout his eight years in office, he continually motivated and energized his supporters while at the same time, confounded and mystified his detractors. Reagan stood tall among the thirty-nine presidents that preceded him, and was one of the most popular leaders of the twentieth century. In his book, Reckoning with Reagan, Schaller attempted to reconcile the facts and myths that surrounded Reagan during his entrance into public service, his back to back terms as governor of California, and his eight years as President of the United States.
Although, he briefly outlined Reagan’s earlier years as a Hollywood actor, corporate spokesperson and motivational speaker, Schaller concentrates on the presidency and how Reagan impacted America to such a degree, that it would be felt for years to come. And for the first time since Kennedy, an era would be defined by a single man: Ronald Reagan. Though he would stop short of saying that he was born in a log cabin, Ronald Reagan grew up in humble beginnings. The son of an alcoholic father whom couldn’t hold down a job and a religious mother, Reagan was encouraged at an early age by his mother to act in school plays.
An activity in which the young Reagan showed much promise. Because of a difficult home life, Reagan created a distance between the reality of his troubled surroundings and the fantasy of how things should be. Many believed that such mental redirection at this early age played a big role in his vision and ideals for America years later. After he graduated high school in 1932, Reagan went to work as a radio broadcaster. The sincerity and warmth in his voice won instant popularity with listeners, and he rapidly excelled in the entertainment industry.
Earning a promotion to sports announcer, he narrated baseball games that came into the station via telegraph. His colorful details and folksy stories intrigued his audiences so much, that many preferred to listen to him rather than the actual game broadcast. While in California to cover spring training with the Chicago Cubs, Reagan auditioned for Warner Bothers Studios and won an acting contract. Reagan continued to be seen on the silver screen in many movies, including several war time morale films during his enlistment in the U. S.
Army during World War II until his career stagnated in 1946. Over the next few years, Reagan’s ability to captivate his audience was honed as his career transposed into corporate spokesman and motivational speaker. This only solidified his most famous moniker as, The Great Communicator. Reagan’s rise into politics started with his candidacy for governor of California in 1966. He ran on a platform of reducing the size of state government and throwing the rascals out. He claimed to be just an ordinary citizen who opposed high taxes, government regulation, waste and abuse.
Reagan capitalized on Californian’s resentment of Pat Brown because of high taxes and the Watts Ghetto Riots of 1965. In 1967, during his first few months as governor, Reagan had no real agenda and had difficulty defining his goals for his administration. But after settling in, he began to stress a moderate tax reform policy and criticized public programs as inferior to those in the private sector. Reagan insisted that California was built by rugged individualists like ranchers and railroad builders and not big government.
This appealed to many in California and set the stage for presidential aspirations in the next decade. After losing the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan went on to win the 1980 nomination and defeat incumbent, Jimmy Carter. He continued his platform of lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger defense. During the first few years on his presidency, Reagan embraced the newly formed religious right, headed by Moral Majority leader, Jerry Fawell and it’s stances against affirmative action, detente, and social movements like feminism and gay rights.
Reagan also took bold strides in the nation’s economic policies. In 1980, he met with economists, including Arthur Laffer. Laffer had presented an economic theory that stated federal revenue would decline with too much or too little taxation. Reagan was sold on the Laffer Curve, and the theory would soon be the foundation for his supply-side trickle down economic policy. During his eight years as president, Reagan’s administration worked to cut back the network of social programs that had become bloated monstrosities.
He also sought to limit the role of federal courts in promulgating judicial fiat and fought to eliminate government regulation of business, banking and the environment. Regan scoffed at those who spoke of a national malaise. Reagan saw himself leading a great country filled with great people doing great things. He emphasized the same rugged individualist spirit that he did as governor of California. It was his goal to shift the American mindset away from the attitude of the Carter Administration where everyone, including the president, needed to sacrifice and do with less, to a belief that in America, anything was possible.
The sky was the limit. In pursuing his dream of a better America, Reagan presented an economic plan to congress in 1981 that would cut federal income and business tax by 30% over three years. On the spending side, Regan proposed to cut the inherited Carter budget by $41 billion dollars and to shift many of the social programs to the states. He frequently plead his case to the American people and continually cajoled the southern conservative democrats. Reagan even turned the near tragedy of his assassination attempt in 1981 into a powerful force to assist his policies.
After crazed gunman, John Hinckley shot the president and gravely wounded several bystanders, including press secretary James Brady, Regan bounced back quickly and recovered at an astonishingly rapid rate. Eager to suspend judgment and wish him well, Congress passed his initiatives by a two to one margin. Because of the massive cuts in taxes and little to no change in spending, the economy went into the lowest recession since the 1930’s. Reagan blamed this on the Carter deficits and democratic lobbyists in Congress. Unemployment rose to over 10%, the highest since World War II.
Business failures, farm foreclosures, and homelessness increased significantly. In the following month, the Republicans lost 26 seats in the house but retained control of the Senate. Reagan’s standing in the opinion polls dropped to 35%. He implored the American people to stay the course. And as he predicted, the economy turned around in 1983, with a decline in the inflation rate from 14% to under 2%. Deregulation of banking laws prompted savings and loan institutions to provide credit to land and commercial developers. Market forces took over and the economy grew to become robust and healthy.
This would be the beginning of a record recovery that would be felt well into the 1990’s. Reagan’s appeal to the American people was unprecedented. With his rugged good looks and ability to charm with corny jokes and folksy inspirational anecdotes, he drew individual listeners into thinking that he was speaking directly to them. Television was his greatest source to reach out to America. He capitalized on his ability to reach out and tug the heartstrings of his audience. His handlers orchestrated his daily activities in order to catch him in the most perfect light possible.
Press conferences were limited and, for the most part, reporters were left to yelling out questions over the roar of helicopter engines as Reagan feigned inability to hear as he walked across the White House lawn to board the aircraft. If there was one defining aspect of the Reagan presidency, it was the fall of the Soviet Union. Reagan inherited a military that was, for all intensive purposes, impotent and gutted. Defense spending rose steadily through 1985, peaking at just over $300 billion per year (p. 126). The Soviet Union, already approaching national bankruptcy, had difficulty in keeping up with the United States in the Arms Race.
In 1983, Reagan unveiled his vision for a Strategic Defense Initiative that would provide a shield of protection over the North American continent. This, in addition to internal forces, lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989; a year after Reagan left office. Schaller outlined the eight year presidency of Ronald Reagan. For the most part, Schaller portrayed Reagan as barely having a grasp of the technical aspects of running a nation. He delved considerably into Reagan’s ability to connect emotionally with the American people and project an image of what he felt America, and the world, should be.
Despite Reagan’s lack of attention to governmental policies and frequent bouts of bucking the political system, he gave hope (real or imagined is still left for the history books) to a nation that had suffered tremendous losses over the previous fifteen years in world stature, economic recession, and tepid leadership. There are those that believe that Reagan was the right president for the right time, whereas others, including Schaller, attempted to read between the lines to find a different picture that had been painted.
In his view, Reagan’s administration was more likened to a finely scripted screenplay that evolved from a lifetime of performances. In the sociological aspect, Ronald Reagan’s success was due in part to his charasmatic appeal to the masses. Shaefer characterized charasmatic authority as power made legitimate by a leader’s exceptional personal or emotional appeal to his or her followers (p. 431). Though Reagan represented legal-rational authority by way of the laws and traditions that brought him into the oval office, his personal appeal allowed him to transcend the normal boundaries that typically divided politicians and the public.
Despite incidents that surfaced dring his presidential tenure, such as the Iran-Contra Affair or arms for hostages, Reagan epitomized the role of a charasmatic leader in that he remained above the fray. That ability was not so much due to his personal political saavy, but rather, the public’s refusal to allow him to be portrayed in any negative light, similar to a famous movie star or professional athelete caught in a compromising situation that would spell disaster for the average citizen.
Instead of public outrage, the celebrity is met with sympathy and understanding as well as an odd public comdemnation of his or her accusors. As Schaefer charasmatic authority, he defined Reagan. Charasmatic authority is derived more from the beliefs of followers than from the actual qualities of leaders. So long as people perceive a leader as having qualities setting him or her apart from ordinary citizens, that leader’s authority will remain secure and often unquestioned. (p. 431).