Ronald Reagan’s hundredth birthday falls on Sunday, February 6. As Steven Hayward pointed out several years ago, Reagan is not only starting to feature in histories — a development that, given the passage of time, was inevitable — but he’s also getting a serious examination, and often a positive one. Historians don’t exist to serve as an applause squad, but when leaders get something right — or even when they have coherent and sensible reasons for doing something that turns out wrong — that deserves to be acknowledged.
Taking decisions under great pressure is an art. While never easy, it is easier to do well if you’ve given thought to the dilemmas beforehand. And Reagan left a remarkable body of evidence that he had, indeed, done that thinking. Kiron Skinner, with Annelise and Martin Anderson, did a great service by publishing Reagan in His Own Hand a decade ago. Years before Reagan’s diaries appeared, the collection revealed that the 40th president had given sustained thought to every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, and, like Eisenhower, had a unity of strategic vision that comes only with intelligence, hard work, and regular reading, speaking, and writing. Understanding Reagan is not the same thing as understanding his administration, or his era, but there is no excuse for saying that Reagan hadn’t prepared to lead.
Of course, Reagan had speechwriters, and remarkably skillful ones at that. But presidents get the speechwriters they deserve. Writing speeches is an art form akin to a Vulcan mind-meld: if the contents of the speaker’s mind are confused, cloudy, or vague, the speech is likely to suffer from the same defects. Reagan knew how to deliver a speech. (Being a former actor does have its advantages!) But he also knew how to write one. His famous “A Time for Choosing” address for Goldwater in 1964 launched his career. His “Goodbye Letter,” written three decades later, is just as clear and eloquent. In his farewell address, in 1989, Reagan explained why he thought he had the gift:
And 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. 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.
Perhaps it’s not in keeping with Reagan’s legacy to lose hope. But I can’t help wondering if Reagan will be our last president who had the ability — even if none of them can be expected to have the time — to write his own speeches. If so, we will have lost something important. A president who cannot write clearly cannot be expected to think clearly either.